Looking for off-the-beaten-path adventure and amazing photographs? You'll
find them in Ethiopia.
In the predawn darkness of 5 a.m., nearly 1,000 people stand in a circle, their white robes reflecting the glow of the candle that each holds. In the center, priests in elaborate, many-hued robes and huge pillbox hats lead prayers over a golden replica of the Ark of the Covenant. Suddenly, the priests turn and start walking. The faithful follow, candles in hand, chanting eerily beautiful prayers in a language totally foreign to Western ears. The procession winds around town as the sun rises.
It's just another morning in Axum, Ethiopia.
This scene is repeated each day during the first week of every month. And in Ethiopia, there are 13 months. There also is a whole other way of keeping time -- what we call 7 a.m. is 1 o'clock here. And lunch is served at 7 (our 1 p.m.). It's also 1999.
If you're getting the idea that this East African nation of 75 million is unusual, you don't know the half of it. The only country in sub-Saharan Africa that wasn't conquered by Europe's colonial powers (aside from an uneasy occupation by the Italians during the Mussolini era), Ethiopia marches to its very own drummer. And that's what makes it such an amazing place to photograph.
The Peace Dividend
The civil war and famine of the late 1980s, as well as more recent battles and saber-rattling with the breakaway state of Eritrea and fighting in neighboring Somalia, have put Ethiopia far down most travelers' "must-see" lists. Right now, however, there's peace, and the country is welcoming visitors to explore what is one of the world's richest -- but most unsung -- historical troves. An invitation from Ethiopian Airlines brought me there, along with six other journalists. During my six-day visit, I found it to be one of the most exotic, fascinating, and photogenic places I've ever seen. Granted, it is a destination only for hardy travelers. Those visitors don't mind getting inoculations before they leave home; won't forget to take their malaria-fighting pills; and can cope with hotels that sometimes run short of hot water, or water altogether.
This is one of the poorest countries on the planet. To the scores of Ethiopians walking along any road in the countryside, as they carry jugs of water on their backs or bundles of firewood on their heads, a passing car or truck is a head-turning novelty. Many of the people outside the capital of Addis Ababa -- and in the city, too -- don't have shoes; wear cast-off clothes from Europe and North America (assorted rap stars, colleges, and softball teams are represented on the ubiquitous T-shirts); and they are rail thin. And AIDS is a real presence.
Yet the fields are green, the food seemingly accessible, and the people very lively and friendly.
If I had been there only to encounter the people and photograph them, I could have easily filled my memory cards with great shots and left happy. After all, wherever we went we drew a crowd of kids eager to try out the English they study in school and clamoring for whatever I might have to give them. ("Pen, mister, please. Pen.") But the adults weren't grumpy or camera-shy. They found us as intriguing as we found them. All it took to get on their good side was a smile, a wave…and, okay, sometimes a pen, pencil, or a few birr (the local currency, worth about 12 cents each).