Travel Stories

The Bridge

         When we meet early in the morning to go to the church at Debre Libanos and to see the amazing Jemma River canyons, Awet tells me he will not be staying over but will return with us to Addis at the end of the day.  I am surprised by this declaration and ask him if it’s about money and he says yes.  He has still asked me for nothing.  I say, “How much money, Awet?” and he says, “About 400 birr” - approximately twenty dollars, or the equivalent of one month’s salary for him.  I think about this for all of a New York minute.  The risk/likelihood I am being taken advantage of seems irrelevant actually.  I want to help Awet, and if twenty dollars will do so, and this is they way it happens, with him unable to ask and me over-eager to give, so be it I think as I reach into my pocket and give him the money.
        The church at Debre Libanos is beautiful.  There is a sign posted at the entrance declaring that there is no picture taking and that persons who have had sexual intercourse in the last forty eight hours or are menstruating may not enter … and I am asked specifically if I can comply with these requirements … and since my camera was stolen, I am not a woman, and I can’t even remember what sexual intercourse means, but trust I haven’t had any in forty eight days or more, I have no trouble saying yes.
         And once again, for reasons I really can’t fathom, once inside the church I am overwhelmed with the reverential stillness that abides there and that seeps deeply and quickly inside of me, even as I sit at first on the women’s side of the church and have to be taken gently by the arm and guided by a priest to the other side, because at the end of a long mass I do fall to my knees “praying” – asking for nothing – only offering my open heart in gratitude.
         Then there is Saint H’s cave, occupied by monks for centuries, half way up the steep sides of the Grand Canyon of Africa, a lichen and moss-stained climb at the end of which I meet an Ethiopian man, now living in New Zealand, his German wife, and their four children, all back home for a family visit.  He is a psychiatrist, she a psychotherapist.  We chat about this and that.  There are other narratives.
         But the absolute highlight of the day is climbing down to walk over a stone bridge held together by ostrich shells mixed with limestone that spans the Gur River before it plunges for several hundred feel over a cliff edge to eventually flow into the Jemma, which eventually flows into the Nile.  The gorge created by the Jemma is literally like the Grand Canyon, only on the way down there are flat fertile plateaus with farms and small villages reachable only by foot, that are so pristine, so beautiful, and so remote, I find myself imagining what being on retreat or living a life there might feel like and promise myself that the next time I’m here - Ethiopia being the only country in Africa I seem to have any desire to return to - I will find the way down to visit.