Mariam has already set to work making fresh bread. She pours batter onto a large, round stone pan over the fire and places a cone shaped lid on top. No need for an oven. This Ethiopian baking method is much more efficient. Before too long, my tiny cup of coffee is empty and immediately refilled. Note: when finishing a plate of Ethiopian food or a cup of coffee, it does not mean you are finished. Rather, it signals to your hosts that you want more.
I set my second cup of coffee down to indulge in the freshly baked bread, thicker and less sour than Ethiopia’s traditional bread, injera. The warm, soft bread is delicious on its own and even better when dipped into the spicy tomato-based stew plentiful with vegetables. The vegetarian-forward, spicy sauces and stews and variations of freshly baked breads, traditional to the Amharic region, have remained largely unchanged over the course of a couple thousand years and fill me to satisfaction each day.
We pass around cups of thick, bitter sorghum beer, take selfies — yes, even in the remote highlands of Ethiopia where no roads, cars or electricity exist, smartphones have still found their way — and simply exchange knowing smiles. Sometimes, language really is not a barrier at all, and the simple commonalities found in smiles, gestures, and the experience of sharing food and drink, express more than words ever could.
By late afternoon, Rasta and I step back into the bright sun. With a full, satisfied stomach and a blurry mind from three cups of coffee, we continue our walk into the mountains. We bypass fields of grazing sheep and aloe vera and get lost in the quiet of the rocky peaks. Eventually we come across a church, some 900 years old and carved from massive stones. I am struck, yet again, by this testament to the ancient history not lost in time, but rather preserved as an important place of worship today that attracts pilgrims making the sacred journey from around the country.
Our ascent eventually flattens out into an open field littered with the beginnings of a stone structure.
“A primary school is being built here,” Rasta informs me. “There is no school for the children in the village. They either don’t go or they have to walk miles each direction. This school hopes to change that.”
I am extraordinarily grateful for the opportunity to remove myself from the grid, to retreat into the simple traditions and healing nature of this piece of the world. And yet, it is only a temporary haven for me, not my constant. I recall the conversation Rasta and I had earlier.
Life in the Amahara highlands is peaceful and people are happy to be among nature. But life is also difficult. Water can be scarce. Farming is laborious and oftentimes yields unpredictable crops. Work is challenging to come by, there is no electricity, and there are great distances to walk to reach places. The villages are scattered and remote with little access to the rest of the world.
The school’s gardener looks up from tending his vegetables and offers us freshly picked carrots from the garden. I crunch on my vividly orange, uncharacteristically sweet carrot as we embark on our final leg of the journey for the day.
There is a hold-up as we near the narrow passageway leading home. Mountain traffic, so to speak. Two donkeys heading opposite directions are attempting to pass at the same time, weighed down by blankets and buckets heavy with grains and water. The walkway, built from boulders suspended over a steep mountain pass, is wide enough only for one. If two tried to pass simultaneously, one is likely going to tumble down the rocky escarpment. The back-up on each side grows as curious shepherds and passersby stop to watch the predicament. Donkeys are the primary mode of transportation in these mountains. They replace motorized vehicles in the absence of roads and transport people, food, water, among other goods, up the precarious mountain passes.
At long last, the donkeys successfully pass one another, averting danger. I walk back into my home for the week: a small collection of huts built on the rooftop of Ethiopia just in time to watch the sun make its swift descent into the mesa, casting a hazy gold shadow. I sit once again to indulge in the utter stillness of Amhara’s highlands and the privilege of simply being present. Before long, the once bright sun has all but disappeared, beckoning the heat of the day along with it.
As dusk settles over the plateau, there is a tangible chill in the air, so I head into the main tukul to find warmth around the fire. Slowly, shepherds carrying staffs and wrapped in thick, white blankets lined with colorful embroidery trickle in from the surrounding villages. They, too, find a seat around the fire to keep warm. This is a place that authentically reflects the meaning of community.
Before long, kettles of water heated over the fire are poured into pans. It is time for the nightly feet washing. The hosts pour warm water over our feet, gently massaging and washing them with soap. I find it to be a humbling, almost uncomfortable experience to have a stranger washing my feet. Yet this is a common Ethiopian tradition with Biblical origins deriving from Jesus washing his disciples’ feet, which is frequently extended to guests after a long journey.
I hug my blanket around me and lean into the fire, observing my company. I am the only woman in the room and the only non-Amharic speaker. There is a certain ease though, that makes me almost forget these details. Rasta interjects from time to time, translating pieces of the conversation, mainly revolved around the political landscape. Politics are at the center of many conversations in Ethiopia at the moment, brought on by the recent election of a new government. An extremely ethnically and linguistically diverse nation, each region is dominated by their own politics and each with their own opinion on who should be in power.
Meanwhile, a bowl of shiro, a chickpea-based stew spiced with chili, tomatoes, and ginger, is passed around with a platter of injera and vegetables. As a political analyst, I am fascinated by the changes happening in Ethiopia. The election of a female president, the change of power from the hands of one ethnic group to another. Digging into my shiro and injera, I eagerly drink up the snippets of Ethiopian political discourse that I am privy to. Not everywhere are such sensitive topics discussed so freely.
The fire slowly dies out and the conversation soon follows. My evening’s company slowly disappear back into the night, leaving me with a chorus of good nights: “dehna ideru!” Wrapped tightly in blankets and armed with hot water bottles to keep me warm during the night, I head out as well.
The night air is as intensely cold as the afternoon sun was hot. The expansive valleys, once etched in a brilliant spectrum of greens, are now cloaked in darkness. The night is spectacular in its own rights, though, wrapping the mountains in an eerie silence. And yet, the night sky is alive as ever, weighing heavy beneath the thick, dazzling glow of stars and planets. As I look up, searching for my favorite constellations, I see one… two… three… countless shooting stars falling through the ebony night. Another gentle reminder to be present: to pause, to look around, and to indulge in the slow, seductive act of mindful living.
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