Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel

I LOVE Ethiopian food. I was first introduced to it 12 years ago, in Tanzania. I took one bite of Injera, the spongy, sourdough flatbread that Ethiopians use to scoop up everything on their plate, and was hooked. Not only is Injera delicious, it’s made with fermented teff flour, which is milled from a Gluten-free seed rather than a grain. So it follows that the bread must also be devoid of carbohydrates and empty calories, right? Okay, okay, I’m delusional. But it’s what I told myself before arriving in Ethiopia. I fully intended to stuff myself with Injera until it was coming out my ears.

But it wasn’t just the Injera I was looking forward to. Half of the population of Ethiopia are Orthodox Christian, a religion that forbids eating meat or dairy products on Wednesday and Friday, as well as during the Easter fasting season. As a result, Ethiopian cuisine incorporates a wide variety of vegetarian dishes, the most famous of which is fasting ye’tsom beyaynetu. The meal, which is meant to be shared, arrives on a large round silver platter, draped with an equally large sheet of Injera. Friends around the table tear off hunks of Injera and use it to scoop up the vegetarian dishes mounded on top. The sweet, sour, and spicy flavors of lentil stews, split pea puree, roasted chickpeas, rice, spinach, and sautéed veggies, all accompanied by a fiery roasted red chili paste, explode in your mouth. A beyaynetu is pure ambrosia, even if I have to constantly blow my runny nose and wipe the tears streaming from my eyes because it is hot, Hot HOT!

Fasting Yetsom Beyaynetu platter served on a huge sheet of Injera

Fasting Yetsom Beyaynetu platter served on a huge sheet of Injera

I arrived in Lalibela, Ethiopia, with visions of delicious dishes dancing in my head. I’d chosen to work with a local tour company, Ethio Travel and Tours (ETT), and was certain that the guest houses they’d booked would allow me to delve deeply into the Ethiopian food scene. After settling into my room at Lalibela Lodge, I made a beeline to the restaurant for lunch and eagerly perused the menu. Spaghetti with tomato sauce or rice with vegetables were the only vegetarian options. Disappointed but starving, I ordered the latter; the rice arrived with no vegetables and a sparse sprinkling of black lentil beans. It was accompanied by a plate of dry bread and local honey. Carbs, carbs, and more carbs. At least I would have enough energy to tackle the rough trails and deep rock-cut staircases at the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela that afternoon. I told myself their dinner menu would offer better options. Read More

Banana harvest in the lush Konso Highlands of Southern Ethiopia

Until the early 1980’s most cultivated land around Arba Minch, Ethiopia, was devoted to growing maize, cotton and sweet potato. In 1984, experts in Ethiopia’s office of agriculture began discussions with area cooperatives, hoping to convince farmers to plant Cavendish bananas on a portion of their land. This had been attempted previously, with little success. Bananas grew successfully in the rich volcanic soil, but the market for the fruit was not well developed. By 1984, however, demand for bananas had grown in Ethiopia. Eventually, a small group of pilot farmers agreed to plant banana trees on about 10 acres. The government arranged for prisoners to transport and plant suckers from the state farm. Extension staff monitored the growing, harvest, and final delivery to market in Addis Ababa. From that first banana harvest, farmers earned Read More

Traditional woven hut in the town of Hawassa in Southern Ethiopia

In Amora Gedel National Park, on the shores of Lake Awassa in Hawassa, Ethiopia, I happened upon this this traditional woven hut, constructed in the style of the Sidama people. These descendants of the ancient Kingdom of Kush live around the lakes in Ethiopia’s Great Rift Valley. Today the Sidama and their sub-tribes number about eight million, making them the fifth largest ethnic group in Ethiopia. Living on some the most fertile land in Africa, for centuries the Sidama specialized in growing coffee, making them one of the most stable and self-sufficient tribes in Ethiopia. That is, until international coffee prices began to plunge in 2001. Read More

Imagine being a slave in Ethiopia during the 12th and 13th century reign of King Lalibela. Now imagine being handed a chisel, hammer, and an axe, and told to carve a three-story high church out of solid rock. Inconceivable, certainly. But when you consider that Lalibela, with the sweat of 40,000 Egyptian slaves, actually completed construction of 11 such churches in a span of just 23 years, the feat is practically incomprehensible.

Perhaps he had help beyond the corporeal plane. It is said that Lalibela performed miracles throughout his life. According to legend, when he was born his body was covered with a swarm of bees. His name is a combination of two words, “lal” and “ybella,” which translates to “honey eaters.” Today the city that is home to the rock-hewn churches proudly bears his name, and the surrounding countryside produces the country’s finest honey.

Bete Mehane Alem Church in northeastern group of rock-hewn churches of Lalibela

Bete Mehane Alem Church in northeastern group of rock-hewn churches of Lalibela

Ethiopia adopted Christianity in the first half of the fourth century, making it one of the earliest countries in the world to do so. King Lalibela was a devout Christian and still today, nearly all residents of the town named in his honor are Eastern Orthodox Christians. Myths swirl around this remarkable monarch. Ethiopians believe he was transported to Jerusalem numerous times by the archangels Gabriel and Michael. It was during one of these visits that God directed him to sculpt the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela out of the surrounding volcanic stone. This New Jerusalem, as it was known, allowed pilgrims to continue honoring their God after Muslim conquests halted Christian pilgrimages to the Holy Land. Read More

A Hamer tribe woman in southern Ethiopia picks her teeth with a twig of Neem while selling butter at the local market in Turmi

In Southern Ethiopia, a Hamer tribe woman picks her teeth with a twig of Neem while awaiting customers at the local market in Turmi. The Hamer are one of some 56 indigenous tribes that live in southern Ethiopia, in an area designated the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples’ Region. The Hamer (sometimes spelled Hamar) are one of the few tribes that do not plant crops. Instead, they exchange their cows, sheep, and goats for sorghum and maize to make porridge. Other than that, they eat only meat, milk, and blood from their animals.

However, there are some things that just can’t be purchased with livestock. When money is needed, they sell their animals or products from their animals at weekly markets held around the region. This Hamer tribe woman was squatting on the ground with Read More

Hippos at Lake Chamo in Ethiopia spend most of their day submerged, eating grasses at the bottom of the lake. But every so often they have to surface to breathe, and I was lucky enough to catch this pod of four doing just that

The Hippos at Lake Chamo, near Arba Minch, Ethiopia, spend most of their day submerged, eating grasses at the bottom of the lake. But every so often they have to surface to breathe, and I was lucky enough to catch this pod of four doing just that. Despite a slight red tinge to the water, which is likely due to the area’s bright red soil, Lake Chamo seemed clean and I was pleased to note that, other than boat trips to see the wildlife, there is very little development around it. Since a portion of the lake is located within Ethiopia’s Nechisar National Park, it has a good chance of staying that way.

As we motored toward the southern end in search of the hippos at Lake Chamo, I thought how nice it would be to stop and jump in for a dip. About that time, we rounded the corner of a small island with a pocket beach. Sunning themselves on the narrow strip of sand were three giant crocodiles with teeth the size of elephant tusks protruding from their lower jaws. Later, Read More