A couple of my friends were puzzled – yes, that I was traveling again – but
above all about the destination: Israel! Jerusalem? What do you want there?? Isn’t
that dangerous?! For everyone who believes that in Israel you have to clear
your way with a gun: No, there are no knifer behind every corner in Jerusalem
or Haifa or Tel Aviv. And thank God or Inshallah, no more Palestinians blow
themselves up out of sheer frustration at Israeli politics. The greatest danger
lurks in the Arab souqs, in case one of the sly salespeople twists you around his
finger. The prices – especially for Asian tourists – might have dangerous
consequences for your wallet. ‘Everyone pays for what it’s worth to him’, a
Palestinian seller once whispered in my ear when after the sixth mint tea I
finally bought his damn antique dagger for eight euros instead of the starting
bid of 300 euros. Funnily enough, I saw the same dagger again in one of the
countless tiny shops today. The guy in the shop wanted to make me a good price.
Only 50 euros.
Otherwise, at first glance, not much has changed in the eternal, holy city, which I visited for the first time twenty years ago. The world has only turned upside down politically, as none of us could have ever imagined in our wildest dreams.
The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is still more of a circus than a place of contemplation – it may have gotten worse. Even now in January, cohorts of tour groups besiege the labyrinth of churches around which is claimed by several faiths in intense dispute and where the Ethiopian Christians live on the roof (more on the Holy Sepulcher in the next post).
Otherwise, the Ashkenazy Jews (usually recognizable by their wide-brimmed hat or their fur hat, the women by their wig and the baby stroller) are still walking at a slightly accelerated pace through the Arab quarter, armed Tsahal soldiers (and, of course, female soldiers) in all skin colors are placed at strategic points. If the sight of machine guns gives you goose bumps, you rather should avoid Israel. There are over 170,000 draftees and 630,000 reservists and sometimes they take their loaded guns to the playground or lean them against the Western Wall while speaking their prayers.
Speaking of the Western Wall: it seems to be persistent – it hasn’t collapsed yet despite the burden of many wishes, prayers and perhaps also complaints.
And on top thrones the unique Dome of the Rock with its real gold-coated dome (Jordan’s King Hussein II is said to have sold one of his houses in London to be able to donate the 80 kilos of gold necessary to cover the dome).
And it still stands, despite the fact, that some Jews would rather build the third temple there. And I don’t assume that it is supposed to stand next to the Dome of the Rock… Non-Muslims are only allowed to go to the Temple Mount on certain days (not on Fridays and Saturdays). Now during winter season it’s accessible between seven and half past nine as well as half past twelve and half past one. In the morning there is less crowd and the light is better – so I will probably have to get up early and skip my breakfast.
Und wieder ruft der Muezzin – und die Sonne kündigt ihren Aufstieg blutrot am Horizont an. Ein Kollege von mir wird mich jetzt sicher wegen meiner blumigen Sprache aufziehen – aber eine Stadt die die Vergangenheit in Jahrtausenden zählt schreit nun mal danach.
Nachdem sich gutes Wetter ankündigt, habe ich kurzfristig beschlossen, einen zweiten Anlauf zum Tempeldom zu wagen. Außerdem wollte ich nochmal in aller Ruhe, ohne Film- und Fotostress, Gott in all seinen drei Erscheinungsformen Jahwe, Gott und Allah für die Gesundheit aller Menschen danken die mir am Herzen liegen. Kann nicht schaden.
Aber diesmal gibt es zuerst Frühstück. Stichwort: Meinl Café. Ich möchte nicht nochmal über den Tempelberg schlafwandeln.
Diesmal nehme ich einen anderen Weg und stehe vor dem Dung Tor. Ursprünglich wurde hier – wie der Name schon andeutet – der Müll aus der Stadt gebracht. Heute ist der Durchgang – Ironie des Schicksals – das nächste Tor zur Westlichen Mauer aka Klagemauer. Durch dieses Tor fahren ständig Taxen und Busse um die Gläubigen auf dem bequemsten Weg zum Gebet zu bringen.
Jerusalem hat heute übrigens sieben zugängliche Tore, zu den bekanntesten und größten zählen das Jaffa-Tor, das Damaskus-Tor und das Löwentor (kürzester Weg zur Al-Aksa und freitags zum Hauptgebet nahezu unpassierbar).
Es gibt noch das Goldene Tor, doch das ist zugemauert. Hier wurde früher zum Versöhnungsfest unser sprichwörtlicher Sündenbock aus der Stadt getrieben, beladen mit allen unreinen Taten des Jahres (der würde heutzutage wohl noch vor verlassen der Stadt zusammenbrechen). Eigentlich würde das Tor direkt zum Tempelberg führen. Es steht geschrieben, dass eines Tages der Messias (so wie damals Jesus) am Ende aller Tage durch dieses Tor marschieren würde (wird?). Vielleicht ließ es deswegen der Osmanenherrscher Suleiman der Prächtige versiegeln. Und dann, sicher ist sicher, wurde davor noch ein muslimischer Friedhof angelegt. Ganz nach dem Motto: Nur über unsere Leichen, Brüder!
Nach dem Dung-Tor ist rechts neben der Zugangskontrolle zur Westlichen Mauer der schmale Zugang zum Tempelberg. Obwohl es schon halb acht ist, hält sich die Schlange noch in Grenzen. Januar, nehme ich an. An der Sicherheitskontrolle kommt mir ein Mann mit Tefillins entgegen, kleine schwarze Kästchen mit Lederriemen, gefüllt mit handgeschriebenen Tora Texten.
Juden binden sie sich zum Gebet um. Denn das „Schma Jisrael“, das jüdische Glaubensbekenntnis und das 5. Buch Mose sagen: „Und du sollst sie (die Worte Gottes) als Zeichen auf deine Hand binden, und sie sollen als Merkzeichen zwischen deinen Augen sein, und du sollst sie auf die Pfosten deines Hauses und an deine Tore schreiben“. Das erklärt auch warum am Türpfosten eines jüdischen Hauses eine Mesusa angebracht ist. So was passiert, wenn man manche Dinge zu wörtlich nimmt. Wobei die Christen in diesem Sinne mit ihrer unbefleckten Empfängnis auch kaum besser sind.
Aber zurück zu unserem Mann mit den Tefellins: Der wurde wohl beim Reinschmuggeln erwischt und darf sie jetzt brav zum Auto zurückbringen. Merke: Glaubenstechnische Schmugglerware hat auf dem Tempelberg nichts suchen.
Was mich betrifft, weiß ich nicht ob ich am Morgen nicht genug gebetet habe, jedenfalls schieben sich wieder Wolken vor die Sonne. Das Wetter in Jerusalem im Januar ist so launisch wie das Schicksal es mit dem jüdischen Volk war. Was solls, dann kann ich den Ort umso besser auf mich wirken lassen. Zunächst wirkt die ganze Anlage wie ein riesiger Garten. Katzen schleichen über das Gelände auf der Suche nach Beute oder spendablen Gönnern. In den zahlreichen Bäumen zwitschern Vögel und die Krähen krächzen mit den Funkgeräten der Wachleute um die Wette.
Zur Sicherheit stehen hier zum einen Gruppen von israelischen Militärs in Riot Gear, israelische Polizisten sowie Mitarbeiter der jordanischen Waqf, die hier eigentlich das Sagen haben. Letztere sind aber nicht bewaffnet. An der Rampe über die wir Anders- oder Ungläubigen das Gelände betreten lehnen übrigens hunderte von Schutzschilden aus Plexiglas. Eine deutliche Mahnung, dass sich gerade bei den Freitagsgebeten hin und wieder die Spannung der muslimischen Bevölkerung entladen.
Ich habe am Vorabend einen jungen Belgier, gebürtig aus Marokko, kennengelernt. Er hat sich mit einigen Jugendlichen unterhalten. Beide Seiten hätten ihm erzählt, dass sie eigentlich keinen Streit miteinander hätten, die Politiker alleine wären schuld. Er zeigte sich zuversichtlich, dass der Konflikt mit der nächsten Generation abnehmen wird. Ich wünsche mir sehr, dass seine Hoffnung nicht enttäuscht wird – allerdings habe ich vor 20 Jahren das Gleiche gehört. Und damals scheint mir die Politik noch auf einem besseren Weg gewesen zu sein. Mit Israelis über Politik zu diskutieren ist keine gute Idee. Der aktuelle Interims Staatschef Netanjahu hat in etwas das gleiche Standing wie Trump. Entweder sie hassen oder sie lieben ihn.
Dass er noch immer nicht im Knast ist, wo er alleine schon wegen der durchaus bewiesenen Korruptionsvorwürfe hingehört, hat er vermutlich vor allem den russischen Wählern zu verdanken. Die haben sich in Jerusalem rasant vermehrt und schlechter integriert als jede andere jüdische Gruppe (z.B. Äthiopier, Europäer, Amerikaner, Jemeniten). Viele von ihnen bleiben untereinander und sprechen lieber russisch als hebräisch. Zumindest bei der Schrift kann ich es verstehen – die schneint mir eher dafür gemacht worden zu sein, in Steine gemeißelt zu werden.
Man schätzt, dass die russisch-sprechende Community inzwischen auf über eineinhalb Millionen angewachsen ist. Das sind bald 20% der 8,7 Millionen Israelis. Und auch wenn Avigdor Liebermann aus Moldawien ihr Mann ist – lieber wählt die russische Community Netanjahu als einen Liberalen an die Macht zu lassen.
Ich bekomme doch noch ein paar Sonnenstrahlen geschenkt, aber wo auch immer ich hinschaue, immer steht irgendwo eine Touristen Gruppe. Rein ins Allerheiligste darf ich ja bekanntlich nicht und ich kann sonst keinen Ort entdecken der sich heilig oder besonders anfühlt.
Also auf zur Grabeskirche, vielleicht erfasst mich dort als Kind des christlichen Abendlandes eine andere Energie. Die Kirche ist überraschend leer, für einen kurzen Moment kann ich sogar ein Bild vom Salbungsstein machen – ganz ohne Menschen.
Normalerweise ist er umlagert von Menschen, die weiße Tücher darüberwischen, oder was auch immer sie gerade zur Hand haben. Manche träufeln auch noch Rosenwasser über das Ganze. Neuerdings kommt noch das Selfie hinzu. Der ursprüngliche Brauch war es, in den umliegenden Märkten Tuch zu kaufen, es auf die Länge des Steins auszumessen um dann daraus das eigene Totenhemd anzufertigen.
Und – das nächste Wunder – es steht auch fast keiner vor Jesus Grab an. Also, doch nochmal einen Blick in die kleine Kammer werfen.
Zu dritt knien wir vor dem Stein – wegen der niedrigen Deckenhöhe ist das für mich deutlich bequemer als zu stehen. Und tatsächlich strömt dieser Ort eine angenehme Ruhe aus, die Geräusche aus der Kirche erreichen uns hier nur stark gedämpft. Andächtig lasse ich den Ort auf mich wirken.
Als letztes besuche ich die Westliche Mauer. Der Stein ist kalt und speckig, in den Ritzen stecken die Wünsche tausender Menschen. Nicht nur Juden nutzen dabei den himmlischen Briefkasten des Schöpfers. Deswegen müssen diese Zettel zweimal im Jahr entfernt werden, vor dem Pessach Fest im Frühjahr und dem jüdischen Neujahr im Herbst, um Platz für neue Wünsche zu schaffen. Die entfernte Post an Jahwe wird übrigens keinesfalls profan weggeworfen oder verbrannt. Vielmehr wird der Papierberg ordnungsgemäß nach jüdischer Tradition auf dem Ölberg beerdigt. Falls jemand von Euch dem Gott der Juden etwas mitteilen möchte: Das geht auch online unter https://english.thekotel.org/kotel/send_note/ oder http://begthelord.com/send/. Die Nachricht wird ausgedruckt und in eine der Ritzen gesteckt.
Bei meinem ersten Besuch hatte ich mir Weltfrieden gewünscht – falls der in Arbeit sein sollte, sind Jahwes Wege unergründlich. Diesmal formuliere ich meine Wünsche deutlich bescheidener. Mal sehen, vielleicht klappt es diesmal besser, da ich mich über alle drei großen Religionen an Gott gewandt habe.
Draußen wartet mein Auto und bringt mich in das andere Jerusalem, fernab der Mauern der Altstadt. Auch wenn es heißt „in Tel Aviv wird gefeiert, in Haifa gearbeitet und in Jerusalem gebetet“ hat die Hauptstadt deutlich mehr zu bieten als alte Bauwerke und Religion. Schließlich besteht München auch nicht nur aus Hofbräuhaus und Oktoberfest. Neben fantastischen Restaurants und großartigen Bars gibt es zum Beispiel den bunten Machne Yehuda Market oder kurz Shuk. Der ist deutlich lebendiger und moderner als der Souk in der Altstadt. Am Shabbat hat er natürlich geschlossen, dann aber gibt es jede Menge Graffitis an den Toren der geschlossenen Stände zu sehen.
Gleich um die Ecke liegt Mea Sharim, Heimat und Hochburg der orthodoxen Juden, der Charedim. Einer Autofahrt am Shabbat wird aus gutem Grund abgeraten. Es sollen noch immer Steine auf diejenigen niederprasseln, die es trotzdem wagen mit dem Wagen. An den anderen Tagen aber bietet sich ein Bild wie aus einer anderen Welt. Es dominieren die schwarzgekleideten Herren mit ihren Schläfenlocken und Frauen in Röcken mit ihren Ausgehperrücken (die orthodoxe Antwort auf das Kopftuch). Muss man gesehen haben.
Ich frage mich nur, warum die meisten Männer, wenn Sie nicht gerade in irgendwelchen religiösen Schriften versenkt sind, ständig am Telefon hängen? Diskutieren sie theologische Fragen oder haben sie einen direkten Draht zu Jahwe? Denn ansonsten müssen sich die Frauen um die Kinder kümmern und den Haushalt schmeißen (nicht immer einfach, wenn man nach jüdischen Regeln kochen muss) und manchmal auch das Geld verdienen, damit sich der Mann mit Leib und Seele dem Studium der Tora widmen kann.
Die Liste der To-Dos in Jerusalem ist noch ewig lang, daher will ich nur ein paar Dinge noch kurz aufzählen: Auf jeden Fall sollte man die beeindruckende Yad Vashem Holocaust Gedenkstätte gesehen haben. Und auch das Israel Museum mit den Qumran-Rollen, den ältesten Schriftstücken der Bibel, ist einen Besuch wert. Die Western Wall Tunnel Tour habe ich nicht geschafft, aber sie soll einen fantastischen Eindruck geben, wie lang diese Tempelumfassungsmauer (deutlich länger als dieses Wort) einst gewesen sein muss. Beste Aussichten auf Jerusalem gibt es von der Mauer der Altstadt aus, die gegen Eintritt bestiegen werden kann. Jeden Donnerstag und Sonntag kann man die Knesset besuchen und sich vergegenwärtigen, dass Israel eine der wenigen Demokratien in dieser Region ist. Und wer noch immer nicht genug hat, kann sich dem heimlichen israelischen Nationalsport hingeben: Shopping! Erst vor wenigen Jahren hat eine riesige Shopping Mall vor dem Jaffa Tor seine Pforten geöffnet.
Und das war nur Jerusalem. Palästinensische Taxifahrer bringen einen auch gerne nach Bethlehem (nein, nicht gefährlich aber man darf nicht mit dem israelischen Mietwagen hinfahren), nach Nazareth, es gibt Touren nach Hebron, geführt von ehemaligen Mitgliedern der Israelischen Armee: https://www.breakingthesilence.org.il/
Dann aber viel Spaß aber bei der Ausreise. Denn am Flughafen gibt es wieder eine Befragung. Und wer ehrlich antwortet, dass er in den Palästinensischen Gebieten war, der verlängert seine Prozedur schnell mal um mindestens 25 weitere Fragen.
Vor meiner Rückreise geht es dann nach Tel Aviv. Dort übernachte ich am letzten Tag in der Nähe des Flughafens, da mein Flieger um 6 Uhr morgens geht (Drei Stunden vorher dasein!). Nach dieser Reise werde ich zum Frühaufsteher (NOT!) …
Zuviel Jerusalem berauscht die Sinne und kann zum Jerusalem-Syndrom führen, also krank machen. Bevor mir das passiert, mache ich mich auf den Weg zum Toten Meer knapp 1,5 Stunden von Jerusalem entfernt. Das volle Kontrastprogram also: Karge Landschaften und dann noch ein Meer (genauer: Salzsee) mit einem Salzgehalt von bis zu 33%. Zum Vergleich: Das normale Mittelmeer kommt gerade mal auf 3,8%. Das reicht zwar nicht für das Guinnessbuch der Rekorde (der 1. Platz geht an den wenig bekannten roséfarbenen Lac Retba im Senegal), dafür aber die Lage: Mit 420 Metern unter dem Meeresspiegel ist es der tiefst liegende See/Meer der Erde. Und der Wasserspiegel sinkt weiter.
Doch auf dem Weg dahin mache ich einen Zwischenstopp an einem weniger bekannten Kleinod. Nach einigen Kurven durch menschenleere Landschaft entlang des Wadi Qelt deutet ein Kreuz an, dass ich fast an meinem Ziel bin: Wer zum Hügel raufgeht sieht es endlich: Wie ein Bienenstock krallt sich das Kloster des heiligen Georg an der Felspalte des Wadi fest.
Nach knapp einem Kilometer lauern auch schon eine Handvoll Händler den spärlich auftauchenden Touristen und Pilger auf. Der Weg zum Kloster ist steil, wer nicht gut zu Fuß ist, nutzt die Chance und mietet einen der bereitstehenden Esel. Ich verzichte auf den Esel und fühle mich später selber wie einer. Ist es der viele Humus oder das viele Gehen durch Jerusalem? Wenigstens spüre ich meine Beine noch – allerdings mehr als mir lieb ist. Warum aber baut jemand solch ein Bauwerk an diesem Ort? Es waren Eremitenmönche, die diesen Lifestyle gesucht haben und bis dahin in den umliegenden Höhlen gehaust haben. Da war ein Kloster am Fels sicher ein Upgrade. Leider wurde es mehrfach zerstört, so dass es in seiner heuten Form seit etwas mehr als hundert Jahren als work in progress steht (oder hängt).
Wir sind übrigens nicht mehr in Israel, sondern im Palästinensischen Autonomiegebiet. Daher wird manchmal von einem Besuch aus Sicherheitsgründen abgeraten. Wenn man die gastfreundlichen griechisch-orthodoxen Einsiedler-Mönche fragt, winken die ab – sie kennen keine Vorfälle. Nach Anbruch der Dunkelheit würde ich mich allerdings auch nicht lange hier aufhalten wollen.
Im Übrigen möchte ich mich noch im Toten Meer treiben lassen und habe noch eine Stunde Fahrt vor mir. Das Ziel ist die Kleinstadt En Bokek am südlichen Ende. Dort gibt es zwei öffentliche Strände, der Rest ist fest in den Händen der Hotels. Wer übrigens an starker Schuppenflechte oder ähnlichem leidet kann sich den Trip von der Krankenkasse zahlen lassen. Leider ist mein zu Schuppen neigender Skalp dafür nicht ausreichend.
Das Wasser ist kälter als ich es erwartet hatte, bislang war ich nur im Sommer hier, da hatte das Tote Meer 30° Wassertemperatur. Aktuell sind es gerade mal 19° – zwei Grad kälter als die Umgebungstemperatur. Auf der Fahrt hatte ich mir noch überlegt, ob man im Toten Meer ertrinken kann, wo doch die hohe Salzkonzentration für so viel Auftrieb sorgt. Ich hatte mir schon Pointen zurechtgelegt, wie – in der Wüste sind schon mehr Menschen ertrunken als im Toten Meer (was stimmt, denn Wadis füllen sich bei Regen rasend schnell mit Wasser). Allerdings verlieren offenbar einige Menschen das Gleichgewicht und schlucken dann das konzentrierte Salzwasser. Das ist lebensbedrohlich, weil es die Lungenbläschen verätzt.
Innerlich und äußerlich gereinigt bin ich bereit für meine Rückfahrt nach Jerusalem. Die interessanten Ziele auf dem Rückweg muss ich wegen der späten Stunde auslassen: Massada, eine Befestigungsanlage auf einem 400 Meter hohen Tafelberg, der heute noch den Widerstandswillen der Israelis symbolisiert. Der botanische Garten vom Kibbuz Ein Gedi, ein Naturparadies mitten in der Wüste. Das Ein Gedi Naturreservat mit Wasserfall und einer natürlichen Wasserrutsche. Und Qumran, wo die berühmten Essener Rollen gefunden wurden, die heute im Museum in Jerusalem ausgestellt sind.
Nach Sonnenuntergang erreiche ich Jerusalem. Jetzt fehlt eigentlich nur noch die spirituelle Reinigung. Obwohl – mir reicht ein Bett – die frühe Aufsteherei macht mich fertig.
Sofern ich nicht spontan zum Islam konvertiere bleibt mir zwar der Zutritt zum Felsendom und zur Al-Aksa Moschee (zwei verschieden Gebäude) verwehrt, aber auch so ist das Gelände wo Solomons Tempel vor etwa 3.000 (!) Jahren stand sehr beeindruckend. Zum Glück bin ich kein frommer Jude, denn auch dann dürfte ich nicht auf das Gelände – ich könnte versehentlich das Allerheiligste entweihen. Aber ich muss früh aufstehen, um das beste Licht zu erwischen. Mein Zeitfenster um den Tempelberg zu betreten liegt zwischen sieben und zehn Uhr morgens.
Wer in der arabischen Altstadt wohnt muss keinen Wecker stellen. Diese Aufgabe übernimmt eine Heerschar an Muezzinen, wenn das ‚Fajr‘, das Morgengebet ansteht. Echohaft wiederholt hallt der Ruf von den Türmen durch die Gassen – kriecht in mein Ohr und dringt dann tief bis ins dahin friedlich schlummernde Hirn. Widerstand zwecklos. Auch ich bete – dass der morgendliche Aufruf bald vorüber ist und ich wieder einschlafen kann. Doch Allah ist groß und ich bin wach. Es ist 5 Uhr 14, mit plus einer Stunde Zeitverschiebung also eigentlich mitten in der Nacht.
Meine Unterkunft ist immer noch Geheimtipp genug, dass ich kurzfristig ein Zimmer bekommen habe. Mit Blick auf den Felsendom. Es ist kein Hotel im eigentlichen Sinne, sondern das älteste Gästehaus der Stadt: das Österreichische Pilger-Hospiz. Das klingt jetzt nicht sonderlich sexy, ist aber tatsächlich eine kleine Ruhe-Oase inmitten der Altstadt. Die Zimmer sind einfach, aber der Strudl im Café legendär. Das liegt wahrscheinlich daran, dass Österreich sehr, sehr weit weg ist. Aber es gibt Meinl-Café zum Frühstück. Leider aber erst ab 7 Uhr.
Noch leicht geschockt von der unchristlichen Uhrzeit (yes! Pun! Intended!) taumle ich also aus meiner Oase auf die Via Dolorosa. Die Gassen sind menschenleer. Beten wahrscheinlich noch. Nachts ab zehn und morgens bis acht gefällt mir die Altstadt am besten. Das orangene Licht der Lampen lässt die Kulisse unwirklich erscheinen, alle Geschäfte sind fest verriegelt und es wälzen sich keine Massen durch die Gassen. Die Altstadt wirkt mystisch, geheimnisvoll, aus der Zeit gefallen. Die Katzen herrschen jetzt über die Gassen.
Der Felsendom verfügt über mehrere Zugänge, aber als nicht-muslim muss ich zunächst zur ha-kotel ha-ma’arawi, wörtlich ‚die westliche Mauer‘ bei uns besser als Klagemauer bekannt. Und damit liegen wir Deutschen eigentlich falsch. Um das zu erklären muss ich leider kurz geschichtlich ausholen.
Die Westmauer war zu Herodes Zeiten nicht mehr und nicht weniger als die gigantische Umfassungsmauer des Aerals auf dem der Herodianische Tempel ausgebaut wurde (Ursprünglich von Salomon errichtet, mehrfach zerstört). Herodes der Große, das war der mit dem mutmaßlichen Kindermord in Bethlehem, der im Jahre vier vor Jesus vermeintlicher Geburt starb (es gibt auch Theorien, dass Jesus im gleichen Jahr geboren wurde in dem Herodes starb) . 1/3 der Mauer ist unter der Erde und 1/3 wurde abgetragen.
Die Mauer war vor 2.000 Jahren also sage und schreibe 54 Meter hoch (ich lass Euch schnell rechnen wie hoch sie heute ist). Aber wie gesagt, sie war kein Heiligtum per se. Doch dann, 70 n. Chr., wurde der fantastische Tempel der auf dem Plateau, an der 54 Meter hohen Mauer stand von der römischen Besatzungsmacht zerstört. Ein paar Jahrhunderte später, immer noch ohne Tempel auf dem Allerheiligsten, beten die jüdischen Gläubigen diese Mauer an, da sie sich hier Gott am nächsten wähnen.
Und die Gebete der Männer und Frauen (beten getrennt) vor der Mauer mit ihren wippenden Bewegungen und jammernden Tonfall können auf Außenstehende durchaus wie eine Klage über den verloreneren Tempel wirken.
Womit wir endlich beim Felsendom wären. Denn damit ich auf das Plateau kann muss ich zunächst zur Westmauer. Nur dort habe ich Zugang zur Holzrampe, die Marokkanerbrücke, die mich hinaufführt. Also erst durch die Sicherheitsschleuse zur Westmauer. Jeder darf über die drei Zugänge rund um die Uhr das Gelände betreten, gleich ob Inder, Chinese, Europäer, Marokkaner oder Iraner. Der Zugang zur Al-Aksa und zum Felsendom wird für mich erst um sieben Uhr geöffnet. Bis dahin habe ich noch jede Menge Zeit die Gebetsrituale der jüdischen Gläubigen zu studieren.
Mit mir warten vielleicht zehn Besucher auf Einlass und tatsächlich, um punkt sieben Uhr wird die Absperrung geöffnet. Auch hier werden alle Taschen durchleuchtet. Dass der Metalscanner warnend piepst, als ich hindurchschreite, scheint keinen zu interessieren – stattdessen wird der Deutsche nach mir aufgehalten: „Haben Sie etwa ein Buch in Ihrem Rucksack?“ Interessant – man weiß hier also noch, wie gefährlich Bücher sein können. Die israelische Wachfrau nickt den Mann durch, als er nur einen Reiseführer aus der Tasche zieht. Wäre es eine Bibel oder ein Talmud gewesen, hätte die Geschichte ein anderes Ende genommen. Fremde religiöse Symbole und Flaggen sind auf dem Tempelberg nicht erlaubt, nicht-muslimische Gebete oder Rituale strengstens verboten. Heiliges Sperrgebiet sozusagen. Bis heute verteidigt Israel – selbst unter Netanjahu – das eiserne Gesetz, dass der Tempelberg den Muslimen gehört. „Muslims pray on the Temple Mount, non-Muslims visit the Temple Mount“ hatte Verteidigungsminister Moshe Dayan nach der Rückeroberung Jerusalems im Yom-Kippur Krieg 1973 festgeschrieben. Die von den siegreichen Soldaten stolz gehisste Flagge mit dem David-Stern musste von der Spitze des Felsendoms nach vier Stunden wieder eingeholt werden, ein später errichtete kleine Synagoge wurde wieder abgerissen. Seither verwaltet Jordanien das Gelände rund um den Felsendom.
Auf dem Areal dürfen wir uns frei bewegen, nur der Zutritt zum Felsendom und zur Al-Aksa bleibt uns nicht-Muslimen verwehrt.
Technisch gesehen, könnte ich mich zum Islam bekennen. Dazu müsste ich nur die Schahada, das Islam-Bekenntnis mit Überzeugung sprechen. “Asch-haddu an la Ilaha illal-Lah wa asch-haddu anna Muhammadan rasul-lallah” – „Ich bezeuge es gibt nur einen Gott, den einen und einzigen, und ich bezeuge, dass Muhammad der Gesandte Allahs ist“. Da sich eben diese Worte auf Arabisch beim Weckruf der Muezzine in meinen Kopf gebohrt haben würde ich das sogar hinkriegen. Ich zweifle aber, dass die Wächter mir meine Ernsthaftigkeit abnehmen würden. Also lasse ich das weite Gelände auf mich wirken und versuche meinen Ärger im Zaum zu halten, dass sich die Sonne hinter den Wolken versteckt. Soviel zum Besten Licht in der Früh.
Anfangs hatte ich gesagt, dass fromme Juden den Tempelberg nicht betreten dürfen. Das ist so nicht ganz richtig. Für die jüdische Glaubensgemeinschaft ist der Tempelberg das Zentrum, das Herzstück zum jüdischen Leben und die direkte Verbindung zu Gott. Aber Ultra-orthodoxe Juden wie Rabbiner Iddo Veber sagen: die Thora erlaube es Juden heute nicht mehr, den Tempelberg zu betreten. Eigentlich ist es auch Nicht-Juden verboten – aber für die sind wir nicht zuständig soll er noch hinzugefügt haben. Und so tut die (jüdische) israelische Gesellschaft das was sie am liebsten tut: Sie streitet darüber wer Recht hat. Weil es so ein nettes Fun Fact ist, hier ein kleiner Ausschnitt aus der Begründung, warum gläubige Juden den Tempelberg (in der ultra Auslegung) nicht betreten dürfen: „Die Thora hat besondere Reinheitsvorschriften um das Allerheiligste zu betreten. Die Besucher des Tempels sollten sich mit der Asche einer roten (sic!) Kuh reinigen. So steht es im 4. Buch Mose, Kapitel 19.“ Übrigens soll die Kuh mit ihrem Blut und mit ihrem Mist verbrannt werden. Nun ja – das ließe sich vielleicht noch arrangieren. Aber dann kommt da noch ein zweiter, wohl entscheidender Grund dazu: „Da unklar ist, wo der Tempel genau stand, ist nicht auszuschließen, dass jüdische Besucher aus Versehen das Allerheiligste betreten. Das hätte schwerste Strafen zu Folge.“. Nun ja, eigentlich sind alle Menschen die sich um das Stück Land am Mittelmeer streiten schon gestraft genug.
Tatsächlich ist mir eine Gruppe von orthodoxen Juden auf das Gelände gefolgt. Beschützt von israelischen Sicherheitskräften und skeptisch beäugt von einem Mitarbeiter der Waqf, der jordanischen Aufsichtsbehörde für den Tempelberg. Dem Felsendom bleiben sie fern, aber sie verlassen, wie es die Gebote erfordern, den Tempelberg rückwärts (Gott zugewandt) und legen sich, kaum draußen, in den Staub und sprechen liegend ihre Gebete.
Man wird in dieser Stadt ständig Zeuge ungewöhnlicher Rituale. Das macht den Charme und die Seele dieser Stadt aus, die sich nicht unbedingt in Fotos einfangen lässt. Asiaten, die christliche Lieder singend, durch die Gassen ziehen, Menschen die ein Holzkreuz schleppen, Juden die das Shofar blasen, Orthodoxe, die gekleidet sind, als wären sie aus einem polnischen Schtetl aus dem 20. Jahrhundert entsprungen. Es gibt so viele Dinge die verrückt erscheinen, dass es für Extremfälle sogar einen Namen gibt: Das Jerusalem-Symptom. Eine medizinisch anerkannte psychische Störung. Nachzulesen bei Wikipedia.
Also von einem religiösen Wahnsinn in den nächsten: Zur Grabeskirche. Oder Holy Sepulchre, auch Holy Sepulcher (beide Schreibweisen kommen in Jerusalem vor). Die Ostkirche nennt das Gebäude die Auferstehungskirche, die westliche Basilika des heiligen Grabes.
Die Ecclesia Sancti Sepulchri, wie wir Lateiner sagen (Hust, Hust), beherbergt die überlieferte Stelle der Kreuzigung und das Grab Jesu. Allein die Anzahl der verschiedenen Bezeichnungen geben schon eine Ahnung davon, dass hier jede Glaubensgruppe ihr eigenes Süppchen kocht. Um hier nicht noch ausschweifender zu werden fasse ich zusammen: Sechs christliche Konfessionen teilen sich das Gotteshaus. Die Griechisch-Orthodoxen, der Franziskaner Orden für die römisch-katholische Kirche und die Armenische Apostolische Kirche haben die Hauptverwaltung. Die Syrisch-Orthodoxe Kirche von Antiochien und die Kopten bekamen im 19. Jahrhundert ein paar kleinere Schreine zugeteilt. Und die Äthiopische-Orthodoxe Kirche ist so etwas wie ein Hausbesetzer auf dem Dach der Grabeskirche, und haben eine kleine Kapelle (dem Erzengel Gabriel gewidmet) an die Grabeskirche angeflanscht.
Die Äthiopier zu finden ist nicht immer ganz einfach. Am Vorplatz der Kirche ist ganz hinten an der rechten Wand eine kleine Tür. Wenn die offen ist, kommt man dort zu den Äthiopiern. Ansonsten etwas versteckt vom Souq aus, einfach nach der siebten Station von Jesus Leidensweg fragen.
Während die heiligen Hausbesetzer also quasi am Rand leben, müssen die anderen fünf eine Art heilige Wohngemeinschaft führen.
Dass es dabei immer wieder zu Konflikten kommt, die weit darüber hinausgehen wer das Bad putzt und die Kerzenreste wegmacht kann sich jeder vorstellen. Ein Zusammenleben ist kompliziert, wenn jeder überzeugt ist, Gott und der Wahrheit näher zu sein als sein Mitbewohner.
Mancher Streit unter Mönchen wurde ganz unchristlich mit den Fäusten ausgetragen. Deswegen hat der türkische Sultan Osman III. (damals Statthalter Jerusalems) 1757 (1853 erneuert) einige Regeln festgelegt. Während Europa von zwei Weltkriegen heimgesucht wurde, die Osmanen vertrieben und Israel gegründet wurde, Flugzeuge und Internet die Kontinente verbunden haben, blieb hier alles beim Alten.
Dieser Status Quo gilt bis heute. Jede kleinste Veränderung ist umkämpft und die Mönche achten peinlich genau darauf, dass es zu keinem Machtzuwachs der jeweils anderen Gruppe kommt.
Am rechten Fenster etwa steht eine schlichte Holzleiter um die sich viele Legenden ranken. Dieselbe lehnt dort unverrückt seit mindestens 140 Jahren wie auf alten Fotos zu sehen ist. Um an diesem Ort Spiritualität zu erleben muss man auch früh aufstehen. Ich habe gelesen, dass die palästinensische Familie, die über den Schlüssel wacht die Grabeskirche in einer bezaubernden Zeremonie aufschließt. Mönche reichen eine Leiter durch eine kleine Luke in der Holztür, so dass der Schlüsselhalter dann aufschließen kann. Aber fünf Uhr morgens – nein danke, um die Zeit ist noch nicht mal der Muezzin wach.
Um halb neun ist es noch halbwegs ruhig in der Kirche, ganz anders als am Vortag zur Mittagszeit wo sich Heerscharen laut schwatzend durch das Gotteshaus schoben. Doch schon jetzt stehen einige hundert Menschen an der frisch renovierten Ädiqula an.
Der Schrein sieht aus wie eine kleine Kirche innerhalb der Kirche. Innendrin ein Raum in der Größe von drei Telefonzellen (für die jüngeren: kleine, drei Meter hohe, stinkende Kabuffs in denen man telefonieren oder Telefonnummern nachschlagen konnte als es noch keine Handys mit Internet gab). Hier soll das Grab Jesu liegen. Tatsächlich haben jüngst durchgeführte Untersuchungen von Archäologen die Möglichkeit dafür zumindest nicht ausgeschlossen. Das Anbeten von Steinen ist nicht so mein Ding, außerdem war ich schon mal drinnen ohne mich dafür stundenlang in einer Warteschlange einreihen zu müssen. Die Kirche füllt sich – für mich heißt das nix wie raus!
Langsam kippt auch das Wetter. Außerdem ist Jerusalem wie arabisches Gebäck. Sehr süß, aber irgendwann wird es einem zu viel. Darum mache ich mich auf den Weg an das Tote Meer.
- to be continued
Der erste Tag in Jerusalem
Ein paar meiner Freunde waren verwundert – ja auch, dass ich ‚schon wieder‘ verreise – vor allem aber über das Ziel: Israel! Jerusalem? Was willst Du da?? Ist das nicht gefährlich?! Für alle die Glauben, dass man sich den Weg in Israel freischiessen muss: Nein, in Jerusalem oder Haifa oder Tel Aviv lauert kein Messerstecher an jeder Ecke. Und Gott sei Dank oder Inschallah sprengt sich auch kein Palästinenser mehr aus lauter Zorn über die israelische Politik in die Luft. Die größte Gefahr lauert in den arabischen Souqs, sofern man sich von einem der gewieften Verkäufer um den Finger wickeln lässt. Die Preise können – insbesondere bei asiatischen Touristen – gefährliche Folgen für den Geldbeutel haben. ‚Jeder zahlt das, was es ihm wert ist‘, hat mir einmal ein palästinensischer Verkäufer zugeraunt, als ich nach dem sechsten Minztee endlich seinen verdammt antiken Dolch statt für 300 Euro für acht Euro gekauft habe. Lustigerweise habe ich den gleichen Dolch heute wieder in einem der unzähligen winzigen Läden gesehen. Der Verkäufer wollte mir einen guten Preis machen. Nur 50 Euro.
Ansonsten hat sich auf den ersten Blick nicht so viel geändert in der ewigen, der heiligen Stadt, die ich vor zwanzig Jahren zum ersten Mal besucht habe. Nur politisch hat sich die Welt auf den Kopf gestellt, so, wie es sich keiner von uns je hätte ausmalen können.
Die Grabeskirche ist immer noch mehr Zirkus als ein besinnlicher Ort der inneren Einkehr – es ist vielleicht sogar schlimmer geworden. Selbst jetzt im Januar belagern Kohorten von Reisegruppen das Kirchenlabyrinth um das sich mehrere Glaubensrichtungen balgen und wo die äthiopischen Christen auf dem Dach leben (Mehr zur Holy Sepulchre morgen).
Ansonsten laufen die Ashkenazy Juden (meist zu erkennen an Ihrem breitkrempigen Hut oder ihrer Pelzmütze, die Frauen an der Perücke und dem Kinderwagen) noch immer leicht beschleunigten Schrittes durch das arabische Viertel, stehen bewaffnete Tsahal Soldaten (und natürlich Soldatinnen) in allen Hautfarben an strategischen in Punkten in Gruppen und versuchen sich die Zeit zu vertreiben. Wem schon der Anblick von Maschinengewehren den kalten Schweiß den Rücken runterlaufen lässt, der sollte Israel lieber meiden. Die über 170.000 Wehrpflichtigen und 630.000 Reservisten nehmen ihre geladene Waffe auch mal zum Spielplatz mit oder lehnen sie durchaus zum Gebet an die Klagemauer.
Apropos Klagemauer. Die scheint auch hart im Nehmen zu sein – und ist trotz der Last der vielen Wünsche, Gebete und vielleicht auch Klagen noch nicht eingebrochen.
Und obendrauf prangt noch immer der einzigartige Felsendom mit seiner mit echtem Gold überzogenen Kuppel (Jordaniens König Hussein II. soll dafür eines seiner Häuser in London verkauft haben um die 80 Kilo Gold spendieren zu können).
Er steht noch immer, auch wenn manche Juden dort lieber den dritten Tempel bauen würden. Und ich nehme nicht an, dass er dann _neben_ dem Felsendom stehen soll… Nicht-Muslime dürfen nur an bestimmten Tagen (Freitag und Samstag nicht) und zu bestimmten Zeiten auf den Tempelberg. Jetzt im Winter etwa zwischen sieben und halb zehn sowie halb eins und halb zwei. Morgens ist weniger los und das Licht besser – also werde ich wohl früh aufstehen und auf mein Frühstück verzichten müssen.
Eine Kurzreise, diesmal leider ohne Esther.
OK, es war eine bewusste Entscheidung. Ich wollte mich aus Neugier mal wieder auf die Israelische Airline El Al einlassen. Wie sehen die Sicherheitskontrollen heute aus? Gibt es noch das ominöse eigene Terminal F? Und begleitet noch immer ein Spähpanzer das Flugzeug? Naja, und ausserdem war es der günstigste Direktflug. Aber wie das so ist – curiosity kills the cat.
El Al ist berüchtigt für seine aufwändige Security – es wird empfohlen drei Stunden vor dem Abflug da zu sein. Für mich heisst das: Sechs Uhr aufstehen für einen Abflug um 10:20. Absurd. Ein menschenleerer Gang führt am Hilton vorbei. Ha! War wohl doch übertrieben! Am Ende werfen zwei Israelinen gekonnt gelangweilte Blicke auf die Neuankömmlinge. Mein kleiner schwarzer Rucksack ist vorne angeklemmt am großen, den ich auf dem Rücken trage. Ich nehme ihn lieber ab, sonst halten die mich noch für einen Selbstmordattentäter und lassen mich erschießen bevor ich die erste Kontrolle erreiche. Trotzdem werde ich aufgehalten und auf Englisch gefragt was mein Ziel ist. Tel Aviv? Mit welcher Airline? Die ersten Fragen von sehr vielen.
Ich erreiche den verschlossenen Zugang zum Terminal F ohne erschossen zu werden. Zu früh! Ich komme mir vor wie ein Pauschaltourist auf dem Weg zu seinem Charter Flug. 2 Stunden 50 Minuten vor Abflug! Für meinen Vater fast schon zu spät. Für mich: Lebenszeitverschwendung am Flughafen. Aber wer weiß, vielleicht brauche ich mit meiner kompletten Fotoausrüstung und dem Pass voller Visa und Einreise Stempel den Puffer noch. Wenige Augenblicke später öffnet das Terminal. Weitere 40 Menschen strömen von einem Wartehäuschen zum Eingang. Ich gehöre also doch nicht zu den Ersten. Aber ich stehe ganz vorne. Wer zu spät kommt – steht manchmal in der ersteb Reihe. Als erstes wird mein Flugticket gecheckt. Der Polizist mit seiner MP im Anschlag beäugt uns aufmerksam. Die Daten scheinen zu passen. Hinter mir stehen aufgeregte ältere Ehepaare mit ihrem Pauschalreisen Voucher.
Im Terminal warten sechs Herren im Anzug in Reihe und Glied. Sergej tritt vor und bittet mich an Tresen 2. Jetzt kommen die legendären Fragen. English please. Are you traveling alone? Have you been to Israel before? Why are you traveling to Israel? Do you have friends there? Where do you know them from? Have you ever been to Israel’s neighboring countries? To the Middle East? To Iran? Turkey? To North Africa? Why? When? Do you know anyone from these countries? What have you done in Qatar? Just a stopover to Sri Lanka? Why did you spend the night there?… nach 15 Minuten scheinen Sergej tatsächlich die Fragen auszugehen. Er wiederholt nochmal ein paar die ich schon beantwortet habe. Ja, wie schon gesagt, das letzte mal war ich vor sieben Jahren in Marokko. Ja, 2017 in Israel. Ja, beruflich. Ja, ich bin immer noch Journalist. Nein, fürs Fernsehen. Sergej scheint zufrieden. Ist auch egal, dass der Stopover in Doha eigentlich auf dem Weg nach Indien war. Hab ich verwechselt, das werde ich ihm aber sicher nicht auf die Nase binden solange er sich nicht das Datum auf den Stempeln anschaut. Sergej verschwindet mit meinem Pass… und kommt mit einem Kollegen zurück. Why are you traveling to Israel? For how long? Do you have friends there? Have you been to Iran, North Africa? Who was there with you? Noch einmal prasseln gefühlte 100 Fragen auf mich ein. Macht irgendwie Spass. Bin ja eh zwei Stunden zu früh am Flughafen. Ich hab Zeit. Die Dame neben mir schwitzt aber schon. Auch ehrlich antworten kann anstrengend sein, die Art zu Fragen löst automatisch ein schlechtes Gewissen aus. Sergejs Kollege ist durch mit mir. Ich bekomme Aufkleber für meine Gepäckstücke und bin sprichwörtlich einen Schritt weiter auf meinem Weg nach Israel. Beim Check in.
Keine weiteren Fragen, oder? Aber das Handgepäck auf die Wage. 14 Kilo. Das ist zuviel, da können wir sie nicht mitnehmen. Ja, Akkus und Kamera sind schwer und nichts davon kann ins Aufgabegepäck. Die Dame am Schalter fragt: “Können Sie was Wegschmeissen?” What?! OK, ich kenne die Bestimmungen für Handgepäck, aber jede andere Airline (ausser Billigcarrier) sind bei Foto- und Filmequipment flexibel. Nur El Al ist für flexibel nicht zu haben. Sollte ich die Fragen alle umsonst beantwortet haben? Endet die Reise hier?
Nach 15 Minuten Diskussion und unter dem Hinzuziehen ihrer Vorgesetzten finden wir einen Weg. Ich stopfe alle Akkus in meinen kleinen Rucksack und gebe die Kameratasche mit 5 Kilo für 40 Euro auf. Wunderbar. Merke: Star Alliance fliegen – El Al meiden. Aber ich wollte ja El Al zum Teil meiner Erfahrung machen. Geschieht mir Recht.
Vorbei an zwei weiteren mit MP bewaffneten Polizisten. Passkontrolle. Ohne besondere Vorkommnisse. Auch das Securityscreening geht schnell. Schneller als sonst. Nicht mal einen Abstrich für den Aegis Sprengstoffdetektor wird unternommen. Und jetzt? Über eine Stunde in der kargen Wartehalle verbringen. Immerhin: es gibt einen Kicker. Und kleine Kinder jagen schreiend durch die Wartehalle. Na super. Jetzt verstehe ich, warum auch die Erwachsenen Israelis immer so laut sind.
Dank guter Unterhaltung auf dem Smartphone vergeht die Wartezeit wie im Flug (No Pun intended) und wir bekommen die große Bustour rund um den Münchner Flughafen bis zur hintersten Ecke. Da steht er tatsächlich, der Spürpanzer – direkt neben unserer El Al Maschine, die uns in Kürze nach Tel Aviv bringen wird. Sicher wie in Abrahams Schoss… (sort of pun intendet.)
To be continued … mit mehr Bildern.
This is our last blog entry for this journey and we wanted to say a few words about Lima as we are spending our last days in Peru here.
Lima is by all means not a pretty city. It does have a nice old center of town and a nice bohemian quarter called Barranco, but by and large Lima’s skyline is a wild array of small and tall buildings, old and new houses, some well maintained, many nearly falling down.
Many only look half built with their roofs missing and electric wires going in all directions. A building code seems to be absent. The weather during this time of year is overcast during, you won’t see any sun for month. The ‘Limeño’ are talking about ‘good weather’ when it’s not drizzling.
Our hotel is a charming old house with a nice little patio but it is dwarfed by much larger, ugly buildings left and right. Nevertheless the city does reveal it’s nicer sides once you start looking beyond the outer veneer.
Lima is surprisingly clean as far as we could tell. Trash cans everywhere and people cleaning up the streets and tend to the public gardens. When jogging (or scootering along as Jiho and Chris did) along the high cliff line one has a beautiful view of the ocean even though the view directly below is oring. A multi lane highway hugs the beach line below and not much else has space there.
Lima has the wonderful Museo Larco with it’s spectacular collection of ancient artefacts.
And it has roped off several large pieces of land in the middle of Lima for excavation purposes (no one knows how much of Lima is actually built on top of such ruins). One of those ruins, the Huaca Pucllana, is a huge temple pre-Inca that is made out of millions of bricks in book shelf fashion, in order to withstand the earth quakes.
The largest Pyramid glowing in yellow light at night was a mound of mud not too long ago and was only recently excavated and made available to the public. There at the Huaca Pucllana Restaurant, overlooking the illuminated ruins one evening, we had one of the best dinners of the trip.
This leads us to the best side of Lima as far as we could tell. The incredible variety and freshness of food and amount of restaurants in Lima. No matter where we went, we did not have a bad meal. This is actually true of all of Peru, but in Lima you could go out every night and not eat at the same restaurant for years. Many are very small. Just 5-6 tables but the taste and freshness is always there.
Let’s hone in on some of the most traditional meat dishes:
Lomo Saltado, a beef stew with vegetables. Always delicious. And so often where we went there is an enticing smell of grilled meat in the air that makes your mouth water.
Then there is of course Cui (for the sound they make…) aka conejillo de indias, the guinea pig. Served as a stew or in whole (which made even Chris regret his choice once…) complete with little paws and little head. It probably has an amount of meat on it like a whole chicken. It is a fairly lean meat, nevertheless sometimes surrounded by pockets of fat (depending on the guinea pigs constitution).
Chris also tried alpaca, which tastes a bit like veal, but with very little flavor. Apart from that chicken and pork are also eaten.
Then of course there is the seafood. For seafood lovers Lima is heaven. Chevice was invented here and you can get it in all variations in pretty much every restaurant. Any kind of fresh sea food is on the menu: Octopus, clams, shrimp, fish of all kinds, etc.
Vegetables are basically many of the same we have, but fried yucca and plantains (cooking bananas) are two which we really enjoyed that are harder to find in the US and Europe.
Peru is also a country for fruit lovers. There is so much fresh tropical fruit here, you can eat it every day nearly right from the tree. Pineapple, papaya, coconut, banana, melons, oranges and other citrus fruit are known to all of us, but they taste much fresher here. Some of the more exotic varieties are the Mamey fruit and Grenadille (a sweet passion fruit). Fresh juices can be found everywhere, frozen or not. What a treat!
And there is always fresh and delicious avocado to be had. Much different than the green picked ones we get.
The main meal of the day in the country side is actually lunch, not dinner. For dinner often just a hearty soup is served. In many salads and soups Peruvians use quinoa (rice of the Inca), which became quite the fashion as one of the superfoods in western countries recently.
Peru also offers a variety of very nice snacks like empanadas or churros to go. Also very popular is the salted corn ‘ Chicha’ (like unpopped popcorn, salted and consisting of huge corn kernels, much larger there than at home. Those are very crunchy and can be very hard to crack some times)
Last but not least we can’t forget the deserts! Peruvians love desert and wherever you go you will find a blend of all sorts of deserts. From lime and fruit pies to mousses and crèmes, each restaurant has at least a few options to choose from. Needless to say, our desert foodies Chris and Sally were in heaven!
Drink wise everything can be bought in Lima. Three traditional drinks are ‘Chicha morada’ the fermented sugar cane juice, quite pleasant to drink when cold, Pisco Sour a highly alcoholic drink resembling a Margarita.
We also liked Chocolate tea. Yes, you have heard right. This is tea made of cocoa leaves and crunched cocoa shells that does indeed taste like hot chocolate, but in tea form. This is hard to describe, but true! Actually you can buy it at the german supermarket REWE (Feine Welt collection) as we saw upon our return.
It was a wonderful trip to Peru, a great and hilariously funny Hatun Runa team and despite some of the hard hiking and riding we did, we got compensated many times over by the friendliness of the people here, the magnificent unspoilt nature and the fabulous food of Peru.
Mucho me gusta! 🙂
Today we had to say a heartfelt good bye to Rocio and her team at Gocta Natura Lodge. We felt more part of the family than guests here and some of us had tears in their eyes when they said good bye. This is a very special place and all of us wished that you could just reach it easily for a long weekend instead of having to travel across half of the world to get here.
We emptied all of Rocio’s provisions for coffee, tonic water and white wine and we ate divine food throughout. The fresh home made breads, sweet cakes and desserts alone are three reasons to come back!
OK enough said, we had to get on our way back to Lima. As we had a flight from Jaén we had a drive of four hours in front of us. The first part through the canyon is picturesque, but not without danger. Driving along a windy road next to the Utcubamba river we witnessed the many land slides that have blocked the only road at various times. Some very recent, some older. The risk of falling rocks or washed out road edges ever present.
After two hours, the deep valley gave way to a more open space. The temperatures turned tropical and rice paddies started to appear as the river delta widened. As soon as we left the river delta, the land around us turned into a dry desert. We were driving into a dry zone between two mountain ranges and the change in vegetation was quick and stark. Trees and cacti appeared that you would find only in very dry areas and the lush rainforest was gone.
Finally we arrived in Jaén, quite an ugly township, if I may say so. Motorbikes and Mototaxis everywhere, not a single charming building, as all looked cobbled together without a plan and aesthetics in mind.
Way outside of the actual town is one of the smallest airports we have seen so far. One check counter, One departure gate and a long bus ride to the beginning of the landing strip. For our trip we seem to have way too much luggage… as if we intended to move here permanently instead of just spending two weeks in Peru.
Taking precautions to not loose certain members of our team (the ones who got lost know who we are talking about ;o)) we made sure to watch out. The plane from Lima arrived and had to be turned around and parked at the end of the runway, so despite such a small airport we had to take the bus to get there.
As the Peru / Uruguay game for the Copa America cup was going on, the boarding announcement was interrupted several times by loud, enthusiastic shouts of the crowd who watched on their smart phones and tablets. Peru beat Uruguay 5:4 in a penalty shoot out. Everyone on the plane was happy!
The flight back to Lima was uneventful. We did not leave anyone behind and all our luggage arrived. We made our way through Lima traffic back to our small buy cozy El Patio Hostelo in Miraflores.
Having only had snacks for lunch, we were all starving and opted for the small restaurant across the street. It turned out to become a memorable night! Good food, live music, way too many Pisco Sours! Esther left before things got completely out of hand. Lets me just say, things got a bit out of control afterwards as the level of alcohol increased as did the volume of the voices singing! We can’t tell what happened to the photos and videos that documented the evening – somehow they disappeared as if by magic …
Let me just say that some of us had to seriously detox for a day, could not eat anything, and/or had to lie down for an afternoon nap in order to recover.
Not being woken up by a screeching rooster is a treat! Bird sounds and rain drops are all you hear here at Gocta Natura Lodge. The five cabins around the main house are far apart and every one has complete privacy. As we were occupying four of the five cabins, it felt like we had the place to ourselves.
All cabins ate very tastefully decorated with so much attention to detail that we constantly are finding small things that delight us. The welcome bowl of chocolate covered strawberries, the stone tiled bathroom with a hot rain shower, a series of pillows on the bed for every liking, home made soap, or fresh flowers in the bathroom. This is such a contrast to all the other places we stayed at that it nearly makes one feel guilty. This is the opposite of roughin’ it!
Breakfast was just as yummy as the day before and everyone ate way too much. Fun fact: we drank so much coffee, that Rocio had to get more (fun fact 2: There was no Gin & no Tonic left after the second night).
Today not all of us felt like another hike, so while Leslie, Jiho, Hary and Esther decided to hike to the upper fall, the rest of the crew had either a leisurely day or was busy filming and droning.
The hiking party stuffed snacks and rain gear into small packs and off we went with two mototaxis. Mototaxis are the cheap alternative to 4WD cars. A refurbished motorbike that served as a trike has a small bench in the back and some sort of roof over our heads.
It rained a bit this morning, so the 20 minute drive was windy and wet. We had to get to the opposite side of the mountain and up the hill to a small village from where we started our hike. We all suited up accordingly and the clouds were low and heavy. Not much of a view so far, but at least it was not cold rain.
It took us about 2,5 hrs to reach the middle of the two falls. The hike was much easier than the one yesterday and we made good progress.
Arrived at the middle section of the falls, you can climb up a steep, wet, wooden ladder to the base of the first fall. The amount of water coming down has doubled since we arrived in Cocachimba. Four large courtains of white water were cascading down the sheer drop of about 200 meters at least.
The sound was deafening and the spray was everywhere.
The volume of water coming down was massive. After navigating down the ladder again, we then made our way to the edge where the upper fall ended and the water drops down a spectacular edge, creating the lower falls.
The scenery was very picturesque, the rain had stopped and even blue sky started to appear. We all had a hearty snack of goodies, from beef jerky to walnut salami, from fresh apple slices to sweet potato bread and set out to head back at a brisk pace.
Soon the sun started to appear and we walked most of the way back in sunshine.
After 1,5 hrs and beautiful, sweeping views (which we hadn’t seen when it was drizzly and cloudy on our way there) we arrived back at the village plaza.
It was a wonderful walk and we enjoyed it immensely. And what was just as good was the late lunch that was to come back at the lodge! Sally and the Gocta Natura team were busy again!
Roasted chicken with fresh vegetables in a red wine reduction! We all could get used to this food on a permanent basis – no problem!
While our hiking party was busy hiking, our two teenagers, Siobhan and Kat were busy chilling, Chris R. was lounging, Chris O. was droning and filming and Sally was cooking.
Everyone was happy and the afternoon was spent relaxing, having hot showers and writing blog entries. This time we have the help of our team guest bloggers Sally and Leslie.
While Jih-Ho is providing Chris O. with some great shots for our blog.
Welcome to heaven !!!! This is the motto when you check into Gocta Natura Lodge. This secluded lodge past the village of Cocachimba has only five cabins in total but what gem this place is!
Tucked away from the beaten track high up at the end of a cul de sac in the middle of nowhere in Amazonas, Peru, lies this small luxurious lodge. The owner, Rocio has created here a small slice of heaven on earth. A cosy all wood and natural stone lodge with high ceilings and an open kitchen invites every guest to spend hours on their balconies and decks with magnificent views or inside snuggled up in cozy blankets in front of a large fireplace.
Three very competent Venezuelans are constantly cooking, preparing and serving the most delicious food and drinks. After the trek to Los Chilchos, this seems to be the polar opposite and it’s wonderful to have three days here as the end of our time in Peru is near.
After a sumptuous breakfast with home made bread, cheese, eggs and jam as well as fresh fruit salad and banana bread we said good bye to our new friend Ricky, as he had to sadly leave us this morning to go back to the US. The rest of us, except Sally who was a bit foot sore, set out for our first of two walks to explore the Gocta falls.
Gocta falls have only been discovered as a travel destination in 2002 when a German explorer named Stefan Ziemendorff heard of falls in the rain forest, that seem to be rather impressive but practically unknown except to locals. He then proceded to cartograph them formally and it turns out that those falls are one of the highest on earth. However, this was apparently based on outdated and incomplete information gleaned from the National Geographic Society, and Ziemendorff’s comments as to the waterfalls’ ranking have since been widely disputed. But who cares – the waterfall is impressive whatever the ranking says.
Gocta falls consist of three parts parts, a smaller but wider vertical fall on the top, a middle section with moderate incline and a second set of falls plunging some hundreds of meters down from a ledge. All in all the entire falls measure 771 meters in height.
Given that the two falls are so close together they are considered one waterfall. By any measure it is an impressive sight and you can only see them in their entirety from far away or via drone.
Today we started hiking to the bottom of the lower fall. A hike of approximately two hours one way, surprisingly up and down. From Gocta Natura Lodge it looked to be an easy stroll of three kilometers, but it turned out to be a five kilometer up and down hike, much more demanding than we thought.
Given that we are eating so well here, we all welcomed the challenge and work out! The weather was once more beautiful again and the sights of the falls when getting closer were spectacular.
Right at the base spray was everywhere. Only lying down or crouching could one take a picture of a person and the lower fall in one picture. They must have been 400 meters high alone. Chris tried to fly the drone, but for one he couldn’t get a lock on the GPS down in the Valley and some magnetic interferences prevented most flying.
Wet but happy we made our way back, another two hour hike until we arrived quite famished at the lodge.
Sally, who did not go on the trek had put her spare time to good use and cooked together with the resident cooks Daniel and Ariana a delicious and very filling late lunch meal for all of us.
Daniel and Ariana came from Venezuela and are now the heart and soul of the Gocta Natura Lodge, taking care of all our needs from the coffee in the early morning until the last glas of wine at night.
Fried yucca, filled tomato, potato salad, delicious pork and beef , too many delicacies to name.
We felt like kings and queens and no one wants to leave this place now. The sheer thought of another meal four hours later made everyone groan, but sure enough after a leisurely afternoon, some singing by Leslie, Chris and Harry, and evening chilling, everyone came back to the dinner table in time to taste fresh tomato soup and an amazing dessert of home made lime tartelet with a meringue top (more to come in the food blog section). It is heaven on earth and the sunset views and food to prove it!
Needless to say that we were all fat, happy and sleepy, so the evening was fairly short.
Since we are travelling in a big group we’ve decided to introduce guest bloggers (as we’ve introduced guest photographers). Today it’s Sally’s turn:
We were up early preparing to say good-bye to our wonderful friends in Leymebamba. The morning was bustling by 7 am because the Harvard Professor Gary Urton and his entire summer archeological field class also stayed the night at La Casona. Nellie, Julio, and Nirmé prepared breakfast for 35 as if it were five! Nothing fazes them and they are always loving and giving, no matter the chaos.
We had boxed and wrapped up our remaining school donations to bring to the Cocachimba schools and our pile of bags and boxes was impressive as we prepared to leave. The night before we said our good-byes to our guides; leaving Javier and Sinecio is always hard. Saying good-bye to Nellie and Julio and everyone at La Casona this morning was hard too. We left with lots of hugs and promises of seeing each other next year.
The drive to Kuelap took about 90 minutes. The Utcubamba valley is beautiful with a rushing river and high canyon walls. We saw evidence of landslides, always a risk in this area during the rainy season. Today however, weather was perfect; sunny with a blue sky.
Esther said she has been ordering it for us every day! On our way to the tram in the town of Tingo, our driver Walter suggested we stop and order lunch at one of the restaurants for after we come down from the Kuelap ruins. Good idea Walter!
The tram is about two years old. There is a beautiful ticket building with information about how it was built. Very organized. We waited for our time to be called and then boarded a bus for a five-minute ride to the actual tram itself. Each car holds eight passengers and it takes you straight up to the base of the Kuelap ruins.
It is incredibly steep but very fun and way better than how you used to get there which involved a three-hour drive on a winding, scary dirt road.
At the top of the tram are a few tourist booths and a little café where we got a quick snack (of course) before we walked the 2 km to the actual entrance of the ruins.
Everyone knows Machu Picchu – but Kuelap is so much more impressive. The walls are 20 meters high and at least a meter thick.
There are only three narrow entrances into the citadel.
They are doing lots of re-construction and preserving of the site.
When our group first went there twelve years ago, they were the only ones there and they could walk everywhere. Now you follow a wooden path throughout the ruins and there were so many people.
But it is still a magical place with trees covered with moss and bromeliads throughout the ruins of the round Chachapoya homes and the rectangular Inca homes.
Kuelap was built by a variety of peoples from around the region as part of a semi-circle of defense against the groups on the other side of the Utcubamba river. We don’t know much about the people because, unlike other groups throughout Peru, the Chachapoya and Inca did not decorate their pottery with faces or stories of their lives.
In addition, Kuelap has only been excavated on the very surface. While it was disappointing to have to stay on the path, it is good they are protecting the ruins for the future.
Chris got gorgeous drone footage that we are all excited to see (but since he forgot his phone in Walters car with the drone footage on it, we will have to wait for it until our return to Lima).
After a quick lunch, we drove another hour to Cocachimba where Rocio welcomed us into Gocta Natura Reserva, her paradise, with open arms. Each of our casitas look out over the jungle with a view of the Gocta Falls.
We arrived around 5 pm and gathered on the beautiful balcony of the main house for wine, drinks, and snacks. The sun was setting, the falls were gorgeous, wine, Gin Tonic and Vodka was flowing, and the group was very happy.
Rocio has built a beautiful eco-lodge, designed by her architect daughter, and the attention to detail is remarkable.
It is filled with fresh flowers and gorgeous architectural details.
After our rugged, challenging trip to Los Chilchos, we truly felt we had arrived to a little slice of heaven.
We crawled into our beds very happy.
Since we are travelling in a big group we’ve decided to introduce guest bloggers (as we’ve introduced guest photographers). Today Leslie is our guest writer.
After a full day of rest from our Los Chilchos hike, we wanted to visit some well known ruins close to the town of Leymebamba. We hired a car and drove up the Cajamarca road for 30 minutes or so and then up a narrow bumpy (the usual!) dirt road. We were hiking with Xavier of course, the most knowledgable self taught historian in town.
We start down a cow path and very shortly are walking in high altitude jungle, palm trees scattered to the right and to the left. Xavier starts to point out the circular stone bases of what was once a Chachapoya village called Cateneo.
These ruins most likely dated back to the 13th or 14th century although no one has done any research or excavation on this site.
I asked why and Xavier explained that the process of obtaining permits is lengthy, expensive and difficult. As a result, many ruins like this one remain in a state of mystery and slow decay. The stones fall, the jungle creeps over the walls and cattle graze in and amongst them.
From Canteneo we hiked to another site called La Congona. This site was higher up the mountain and contained what Xavier thought to be important ceremonial structures, with beautiful detailed stone friezes on the upper portion of the circular walls.
These were impressive indeed, the patterns mesmerizing, and I could not help but wonder how magnificent these circular stone structures would look complete with the thatch roof and stone stairways that lead to each entrance. We were informed that the area we were hiking in had many more ruins close by and that this may have been an important location in the region relative to organization and religion within the culture.
It is known that when the Inca Empire came along to conquer the Chachapoya, it actually took close to 100 years, so fierce were these people. Yet so much is still not known about their daily existence as resources to investigate are so limited. So for now their secrets remain buried under the jungle vines and trees.
Our day continued with another visit to the Leymebamba museum – but this time we were to be allowed in the mummy room!
But first we had to get there and ordered a mototaxi or in this case an original Bajaj car + a mototaxi. How do you fit four people plus driver in a Bajaj which is smaller then a smart?
Well, you do. Only that the Bajaj didn’t make it all the way to the museum due to some ‘gas problems’ and we had to call another taxi for us four.
But eventually everyone arrived safe and sound at the Leymebamba museum.
We were also surprised to see a group of Harvard students visiting there with Professor Gary Urton, one of the most knowledgable archeologists of the Inca and an avid researcher of the Khipu. The Khipu was the instrument by which many cultures, including the Chachapoya, kept records. It is a series of many strings tied onto one main string, and was used as a counting device. This gem of a museum has three of the most interesting Khipus ever recovered. They were found at the Lake of the Condors along with the 200 plus mummies that were rescued after being nearly destroyed by looters.
And still this day was not done! We finished with a visit to our long time friend and guide Sinecio’s house. We were served tea and humitas, a local traditional corn based tamale with meat inside, steamed in banana leaves and served warm.
Finally back to La Casona, we ate (again) and packed for our bus trip to Kuelap the next day, but not before we were asked to give a short talk to all the Harvard students about our non profit work in the area. That’s what I call a busy day!
The warm shower last night felt wonderful to everyone and not even the roosters could dampen the nice feeling of having arrived back home at Nellie’s & Julio`s La Casona.
Those two siblings make everyone so welcome at La Casona, that it really feels like staying with friends in their house rather than in a hostelo. Any time we could go into their kitchen, use the fridge, get fresh fruit or ask any type of question we wanted.
Today our main goal was to deliver some of the educational items we still had left, to the local kindergarden in Leymebamba and also do some fun activities there.
The kindergarden of Leymebamba was one of the first ones Hatun Runa donated a new playground to some years ago. This was such a hit with the youngsters that based on the very same model, hundreds of other kindergardens were outfitted by the Peruvian government since.
After walking there a large group of 40 or so small children descended upon our small group of eight. Randomly each of us got their legs wrapped around by small pairs of arms and hugged fiercely. In a semblance of order they sang some songs and avidly watched what treasures we brought. Quickly the only way to get those items to safety from prying fingers was to airlift the two boxes out with long arms and get them to safety in one of the class rooms.
Siobhan and Kat had brought colorful strings from the US to Peru and wanted to make friendship bracelets with all the kids. When we saw how many kids there were, we were all converted quickly into helpers braiding, cutting and assisting kids getting their bracelets done. Each child wore their bracelet with pride once each one had one wrapped around their little wrist.
After some more singing and dancing together it was time for lunch and in Leymebamba that meant that all kids are being picked up by their parents and go home for lunch and a nap. Again, saying good bye was accompanied by many hugs, kisses, shiny eyes of the proud bracelet bearers and a huge cacophony of little voices.
Being alone in the street without the sound background felt weird, making one feeling partially relieved and partially deprived.
Hungry ourselves we bought little steamed quails eggs, a local delicacy from a street stall before sauntering home to La Casona. Not before making a bee line to the local convenience store for some dark local beer of course.
Back at Nellie`s the nice sun spurred everyone into action to wash their dirty laundry as best as possible and hang it up to dry in the sun. Hand washing it in a large tub with regular soap in cold water was the best we could do. Consequently while the sweat was washed out, a nice fresh smell would have been hard to some by. Well that’ll have to wait until back home.
Next on our fun day off was a visit to Xavier’s house, one of the two main guides who helped us to get to Los Chilchos safe and sound.
We were instantly captivated by his amazing place, the view, everything. Xavier just started to rent two the rooms in the upper level, so should you consider travelling to Leymebamba, Xavier’s place would be a great choice, last but not least because of the fanatstic soup we were served as his guests.
Meanwhile, Sioaban, Sally, Chris, and Jih-Ho engaged in a contest, who will have taken the most kid, puppy or cat pictures in the end. Which is why this is the most populated gallery ever in this blog (warning: Cuteness overload).
Eventually we had to leave for a great dinner at the Kentitambo Hummingbird Inn, where we have been before for lunch.
We enjoyed a marvelous evening end all laught our heads of, last but not least due to Ricky’s “dad jokes” as Sioaban and Cat called it.
When we left it was late and pitch black dark outside, which gave us the oportunity to see the stars of the southern hemisphere night sky above the museum of Leymebamba.
Today we sadly had to head back to Leymebamba from Los Chilchos. We all really enjoyed our time there and to see the difference in people’s lives a small initiative like Hatun Runa could make.
Many of the kids we saw will be going to the new school hopefully later this year or early next year. Los Chilchos is a growing village and the larger school will be needed urgently very soon. It will allow the village to offer a true and adequate 5th and 6th grade for their children.
After a last breakfast we set out early as the trek back will be just as long a day as coming here. The weather gods were with us again and we set out in brilliant sunshine at a brisk walk along the river.
We mounted the horses once the uphill slope started, and what an uphill it was! 8.000 feet (2.500 m) of altitude difference for us, our horses and the mule. Deep, rutted tracks of half baked clay steps were laying in front of us for the first part of the journey.
It was very exhausting for our animals and we took turns walking and riding. Uphill being on a horse definitively was faster than walking and we had to make sure to cover enough of a distance so we would not run into the dark at the end of the day.
Ever up we climbed until we were at our lunch spot, at the little casita called Laurel Lodge around noon time.
We had the best vegetable tortilla with fresh avocado we all had ever eaten! There was not event time to take a snap shot for our food blog entry, it was gone that fast!!!
Expecting and suiting up for wind and colder weather up on the pass we set out walking further up the mountain path.
The odds were very slim to ever see the highest pass not in clouds, but we were so lucky and the sun came out again and magically cleared the entire mountain region of rain clouds. The views were breathtaking.
Green, lush virgin forest as far as the eye could see in all directions. There were hardly any signs of civilization to be seen. A roof top here and there, a small path, a passing farmer on his mule, a discarded candy wrapper were the sparse signs of human presence in this remote part of Peru.
Having climbed up 8.000 feet, we needed to get down 6.000 feet (1.800 m) again back to where the car was hopefully waiting for us. It was a long, windy, slippery and wet downhill trail. Half of our group preferred to walk and downhill they were actually faster than the horses.
Half of us rode and it was a unique experience to feel the horse move and shift underneath you with incredible precision and balance. After all they not only needed to get their own weight down the mountain slope, they also had to balance our weights on top of that.
They clearly had done this many times before. In addition, this was heading home for most of them, so that gave them an extra burst of energy.
The last part of the trail as fairly flat and wide, and our horses clearly wanted to stretch out and run. Four of us had a fun race to the end, losing badly tied items on the way. Xavier one of our main guides luckily saw it and stopped and picked them up. Gracias!!!
Talking of our guides, they were fabulous! We had three of them always accompany the riding/ walking party and two were always with the pack horses. We had 11 horses for riding and five for the packs. The two senior guides, Xavier and Senessio as well as Saul walked and rode with us, taking turns, while Lennis and Einstein (his actual name was Albert, but he went by Einstein ;o) ) made sure the packs were properly loaded and unloaded and the pack horses kept up.
Those five clearly were a well oiled team and everyone was grateful for their attention to detail, patience and knowledge they provided during the entire trek. We could not have wished for a better crew!
Arrived at the car again, we had to say farewell to our beloved mounts and took one last group picture before splitting into two teams, one driving down and one riding down to take care of the animals.
After arriving in Leymebamba again, we were all craving hot showers and a good wash!
Needless to say that we all were ready for an early night!
Today it was a very slow start. The residual alcohol in the blood stream was taking a toll on some of us, while others recovered fast from the localy brewed aguardiente…
After breakfast at around 10 AM a group of villagers and our small group gathered at the new school building. Hatun Runa had been raising money to build a new school here for two years and with the first batch of donations, the base walls and the roof were built.
The second batch that still is to be done, will have to take care of the windows, doors, floors, bathrooms and interior finishings. As there is much rain here in Los Chilchos, what is much needed is a drainage around the school building and with wheel barrows, shovels, pick axes and 20 pairs of hands, we set out to level some of the mud floor, digging a drainage trench around the building and carting away the not needed soil. The locals were pretty impressed how strong the women in our group were (‘you guys must be very proud of your women’).
Again it was a sunny day and we sweated plenty. In about three hours the work was done.
Everyone helped and it amazed all of us how quickly things could get done if enough people helped together.
Lucky for Hatun Runa, the construction of the school is being overseen by the same foreman that already oversaw the building of the new Ucumari coffee plant. Tapping into that infrastructure is priceless and very fortunate for Hatun Runa and the village. Just getting funds transferred and properly disbursed is already a major challenge here.
Exhausted and dirty but happy we went for lunch. And were looking forward to visiting a sugar cane mill in the afternoon.
Heading out in bright sunshine (still an anomaly in Los Chilchos) at a leasurely pace we walked to the sugar cane mill. We heard the sound of the mill long before we actually saw it. Loud gnarling sounds could be heard.
Next we saw a wooden mill pulled by a horse and a mule going in circles. In the middle three wooden rolls are working to squeeze large stalks of sugarcane until the sugar cane juice dropped out into a vat underneath the press. It tasted very sweet.
The cane juice then gets cooked for several hours until it’s a very thick sirup. This then gets poured into a wooden board with round depressions and hardens into a hard brown blocks of sugar. It tasted very much like molasses.
We put Harry and Chris H. for the picture onto the wooden mill and are still discussing who’s the donkey and who’s the horse.
Back at the coffee plant, the staff there was so nice and showed us what happens if one of the farmers brings harvested coffee to the plant.
How it is being sorted, de-shelled, cleaned and then set out to dry. Once dry, the shells get separated from the beans and sifted by hand. We got a kilo to take home of course.
After our last dinner here in Los Chilchos, we packed for the next day, when we are scheduled to head back to Leymebamba on another all day trek.
Pictures: Jih-Ho, Sally, Chris
Today after a hearty breakfast of eggs and hockey pucks, we were eagerly awaited in the school.
All students lined up to sing and the boxes with the school supplies and toys that we brought were standing in the middle. The kids craned their necks to see what was in there and you could see that they would love to just dive in and start playing and using the things we brought.
The teachers though were quite adamant, that they were the ones to first view and then distribute those supplies to wherethey were needed most. The boxes were carried away to safety and the sport games program of Los Chilchos began.
This was their annual field day and sports activities were lined up in stations around the big village soccer field.
First there was shot put with large, round stones, then an obstacle course that was pretty long actually.
Of course we were expected to participate. Needless to say that we were out of breath after half the course and several of us demanded oxygen tents. We all served brilliantly as comedic entertainment for the village population, old and young. It was great fun for all of us.
Then came the disciplines of fishing and swimming . Not all of us wanted to jump into the cold river, but some of us did.
Back at the village green Chris let his drone fly. As always the kids were in awe and super excited to see something they had never seen before. The aereal pictures were less interesting to them, than seeing the actual drone fly close to the ground. I guess that’s the attraction of a remote controlled airplane, rather than seeing the world from up top.
It was time for lunch and every day they served something new and delicious. Yucca, some new sort of root, yummy soups. We took all our meals in a little dirt floor multi purpose room. One side served as an art gallery of old Pin Up pictures, the other as a rudimentary store front, one as a cinema with a TV and one as a memorial wall to remind one that this was a christian country with depictions of Jesus and Mary. It was a rather unique setting! Dogs, ducklings and chickens wandered freely in and out how they saw fit, checking out if they could scavenge some scraps from us.
Our food was prepared in a nearby kitchen. Low ceiling, open fire place and much to our amazement a herd of little guinea pigs was running around free on the floor. They can’t escape, as they cant master hopping over the door step. They are less intended for cuddling than to serve as meat source once in a while.
After some mid day rest, the sports activities continued. Boys and girls were playing a soccer match on the village green, and an animated volley ball game was going on as well. Even the littlest of children knew how to get the ball to the other side of the net.
Of course it did not take long until we were asked to participate and needless to say, besides the local players we all looked like beginners! It was fun and luckily we did not have to go against the teachers team, as they would have whipped our butts, we are sure!
A bit apart from the main action, Chris noticed something that caught his eye. Roosters tied to a pole in the ground at the edge of the field. Curious as always, he went to look. The owner of the roosters demonstrated how they were pitting two cocks against each other in a cock fight. Luckily without any metal spurs and so no blood was flowing. Nevertheless a pretty gruesome sight, as those two roosters were really going at each other and had to be separated in the end, as they don’t stop fighting by themselves.
The afternoon neared it’s end and we wandered towards our rooms to clean up a bit when a delicious smell caught our attention. It turned out that fresh bread was being baked in a wood fired oven and for one Soles (approx.. 30 cents) we got five fresh and soft hockey pucks. They tasted so delicious, we went for seconds and thirds…. What a treat!
After dinner, we rested a bit as a long party night was in front of us. Our room was a future guest room in the coffee plant of Los Chilchos.
Plant may sound grandiose, it’s a rather small operation that allows the local villagers a modest income by planting, harvesting and producing coffee (Ucumari) in cooperation with Apenheul, a Dutch nature conservation initiative.
Ucumari/Apenheul originally bought large swaths of land to protect the wild habitat of the yellow tail wooly monkey, a very rare monkey species in Peru only living in the cloud forest of the Chachapoyas. Their habitat was threatened by the ever growing clearing of native rain forest to make grazing space for cattle. To stop the clearing altogether, Ucumari and the Los Chilchos village formed a partnership to grow organic coffee and sell it at an agreed fair price so the villagers would not need to destroy more of their rain forest for cattle. This proved to be a highly successful match and clearing of land has nearly stopped. The Ucumari team, espacially Alan, helped Hatun Runa supervising the building of the school alongside their structure.
That night, Ucumari threw a party at their coffee plant and the whole village came. We all had a blast. Live Peruvian music, dancing, singing, eating, drinking anything that makes a party great was there. Action was going on until about two in the morning and some of us were clearly under the influence the next day!!
It’s time for our ten hour treck to Los Chilchos. The night before, Ricky gave us a presentation what to pack for the four days in the middle of the rain forest. The bottom line of it was: as little as possible since it all has to be transported on horseback (or on our backs).
Chris has already gotten used to the trekking saddles over here by practicing on our wooden horse at our hotel ‘La Casina’.
So we were ready for our big trip to the remote village Los Chilchos.
We got up again very early, as it will take us the whole day to make our way from Leymebamba to Los Chilchos and no one wants to be stuck on the trail without daylight.
One hour drive with a minibus to our drop off point and then an eight hour walk and ride on horseback. Sunset is around 6 PM each day. Not much time to spare.
After a bumpy ride with a minibus up a steep, windy road we were confronted with the real Peruvian weather in this region. Low hanging clouds, obscuring the mountain tops and a drizzle of rain to start with.
We all suited up accordingly to resemble mountain expeditioners on the trails for days. Our horses, or should I say ponies, were already waiting for us as well as some pack animals. Everything has to be brought there by foot or pack animal. There is no road to Los Chilchos, just an very rocky and muddy path up and down through the mountains.
We put on rain gear, cold gear and wind gear and then got assigned our mounts. By and large everyone was happy about their horse (and one mule). Esther had a pretty grey called Moro, Chris a nice black mare called Nena. Harry had the mule to start out with and found it quite comfortable. Once all were mounted and the saddle bags stowed, we set out on a wide muddy track towards a misty destination in the distance, some eight hours away. The horses are so sure footed and tough, that they can carry a third of their own weight on their backs for hours.
A light drizzle and a fierce, cold wind made us all snuggle further into our warm coats, hats and gloves. Soon at least the rain stopped and it started to clear up a bit on the lower mountain sides. The higher we got, the denser the clouds got again. Chachapoyas, people of the cloud forrest. One has no doubt that this name fits perfectly.
We alternated the walking and riding, some preferred walking to riding and vice versa. All of us were wearing rubber boots instead of hiking shoes, as the mud is ever present and ankle deep in most places. Boot liners, thick socks, plasters, all needed to make sure the blisters did not show up too soon! We’ve never hiked the mountains in rain boots!
First we had to hike and ride up 6.000 feet only to then descend 8.000 feet to Los Chilchos, in a warmer valley. The highest mountain pass had no view due to the low clouds but the altitude was making everyone breathing heavily. Despite all of us being reasonably fit, one has the impression of total unfitness when climbing up a steep, rocky slope in 12.000 feet altitude.
We had lunch on a nice half way point and as we had left the cloud cover behind, breathtaking views started to emerge. Even the sun came out and we saw undisturbed nature and forest for miles on end in each direction. Really not much different must have looked this exact same trail a hundred years ago.
We shed our rain gear and several layers of clothing on the downhill trek to Los Chilchos.
Deep ruts forced our horses to take very careful steps and often the downhill stepping stones felt like vertical drops to the rider. Amazing what those animals can accomplish! They sometimes ponder their next move and very rarely take a wrong step. On the very steep slopes, we got off the horses to make it easier for them to navigate this very challenging terrain.
Part of the trail was a stone paved band of rocky blocks of stone, not smooth at all, but keeping the path intact. Some of the path was just pure mud holes and gravel. Stoically all animals went about their path and we were all grateful for it.
The lower we got, the hotter it got too! Apparently we were super lucky with the weather as fellow travelers had told us of hours of wet misery in the saddle and on the trail on other visits to Los Chilchos.
Tired and saddle sore we finally arrived at Los Chilchos around 4.30 PM and were shown our sleeping quarters for three nights. Chris and Esther had the luxury of a room to themselves even if the beds were not constructed yet. Improvisation is key here and soon we had two working beds in our rudimentary abode at the coffee plant while others slept in the health clinic.
Solar energy provided some lighting but other than that there was only one electric outlet in the whole village that could charge Chris’ drone.
To round out an exhausting but eventful and wonderful day, we were invited to the school for a community dinner of a simple but rich chicken soup and yucca.
Fun fact: as dessert hot, very sweet coffee (in the late evening!) was served and the locals dip their cheese in it, like we dunk bisquits in it. Off we went to a well earned sleep, looking forward to meet the people living at such a remote place.
Today we got up early to do our day two of acclimatisation. A half day walk and a visit to the village of Atuen was on the menu. We took a 4×4 minibus over the newly built road that connects Leymebamba to Atuen and then further to Chikibamba.
A few years ago, Rene, Esther’s dad, still had to hike and take the horses there for a full day that now is a bumpy drive of roughly two hours. Progress is unstoppable…. For the villagers who live mainly from growing organic potatoes, it is a hard life up here, where it is almost always windy, rainy and cold. The population is shrinking despite the new road making transportation easier.
We visited the health clinic and Ricky checked a few things. Solar panels were working so important medicines could be kept refrigerated.
This is a basic outpost for the most urgent medical care in the area. A small hospital bed and visitation room, simple, but so important for the people here. Hatun Runa, the US based charity we are traveling with, has been working for over a decade in remote villages in the Northeastern Andes of Peru like they did here in Atuen. Even small donations can do great good in Peru.
Same goes for the Atuen school. A new kindergarden is being built and while the old school building will continue housing the kids up to grade six.
After that, very few go onto higher schools, as they would need to do so in Leymebamba. Not all kids of the village go to school at all. A number are needed by their parents in the fields and therefore only get a very basic education at most.
The elementary school teacher is called Narca and does what she can to help and teach the kids there but the limitations of doing so are everpresent. 16 children aged three to 13 share one class room all on different levels and with different needs and only one teacher to help them. Local mothers take turns in cooking a warm meal for lunch which is often the only warm meal the kids are getting. What a luxury world we have for our children in the US and Europe, and we still complain about so many things. Visiting here puts things into perspective real quick.
We brought the school some supplies, books, childrens educational toys and Ricky, Harry and Chris proceeded to open a very large wrapped box that was delivered there without many instructions.
It turns out that it was a solar energy storage system. In the adjacent room we found many solar panels and mounts. Narca gave us a piece of paper that calls for a list of local things the villagers need to provide (like sand, wood and labor) in order for the government dept. of mining to send an engineer on site to install the solar system. The villagers are supposed to build a hut to house the transformer. The system is supposed to deliver enough energy for the school and the new kindergarden which is being built next door. If this is a genuine good will from the government of Peru to better the situation in remote villages, or is designed to sway the villagers to agree to open their land for mining is not clear to us at this point in time. Mining is the big cash cow here and those companies are insatiable for new land to be opened up.
Unfortunately in Peru while the villages own the right to work on the surface of the land, the government owns all the soil underneath. Often a cause for big disputes as the mines are never underground mines but surface mines eating up huge chunks of land to mine for silver and copper.
Behind the old school, Leslie showed us some rectangular holes in the ground, about seven feet deep with steps leading down to them. This was an ancient Inka settlement, the ruins of houses still hidden underneath many of the small mounds of earth around us.
The rectangular chambers were designed on a little stream, that could be diverted to fill two pools with clear water. According to ancient stories, a wounded Inka king was nursed back to heath here for two years. We searched and found still a number of pottery shards most likely dating back to that time.
After saying farewell to Narca, we started our hike to two remote lakes straight into the hills. Despite all odds, the sun came out and transformed this arid land into a magical hobbit land.
Our hike was supposed to last 40 minutes , which turned into two hours and 40 minutes – one way ;-))) Nevertheless we could not have wished for a better day to get used to the high altitude. Atuen lies at 3.450 meters above sea level and we hiked some more up.
We had a beautiful lunch in a wind protected area on the lake shore, taking in the grandiose views. Not a single tourist in sight.
Just our small group and some cows.
Having noticed that we took a circular route to get here, we took a more straight one back and arrived at the car a bit exhausted but perfectly happy. What a wonderful day !
Now the only thing left was to pack our bags that were going on the pack horses in the morning to Los Chilchos. Difficult decisions…. for some of us ;o))
After a nice and quiet night, we were woken up way too early by a pair of mobbing roosters, that produced 100+ decibels of noise. Usually one does not think of dinner that early in the day, but boy! we certainly wished that dinner plans included roasted rooster in the evening.
While some of us had a lazy morning, sorting hiking gear out, others were already out and about getting acclimated to the high altitude. After a simple breakfast of eggs and hockey pucks (round hard bread loafs) we proceeded to sort out our footwear for the long hike, mostly done in knee deep mud (so we are being told). Hence that footwear consisted of the good old fashioned rubber boots with good hiking socks. Most of our group found suitable pre-owned footwear right at La Casona. Jih-Ho of course picked a pair that was used for spider housing in the past and decided a brand new pair was in order.
We set out to the town center in search for boots, but all suitable shops were closed at the time. Leymebamba is an old Inca settlement. The town center is a pretty open space and most of the shops, the police etc. are lined up around it.
Later in the morning we set out on foot through town towards the museo de Leymebamba. Here is where most of the recovered mummies and arte facts taken from the recently found Chachapoya tombs are stored and can be seen.
In the Late 1990’s, by sheer coincidence, a group of local cow hands fell upon a series of Chachapoya tombs, hewn into the cliffs of sheer mountain walls. They then proceeded to ransack and loot them, taking all the valuables and destroying hundreds of mummies doing so. Luckily through their own carelessness, it became known in Leymebamba what had happened and brave, fast acting locals went to the tombs to protect what was left. The archaeological community was outraged at what had happened and funds were collected all over the world to start properly extract, store, investigate and preserve the mummies and their tombs. The museo de Leymebamba was built to honor and house what is widely regarded as one of the greatest archaeological finds of the 20th century. This find changed the importance of Leymebamba drastically.
We walked a pleasant 40 min walk up the hill to the museo and fell in love with one of their living furry residents, a baby alpaca. So cute when little, they spit when they don’t like being approached.
The exhibits were very interesting and lovingly done. We were the only visitors at the place and could take all the time we wanted to stroll through. The mummies were very well preserved and many are actually still enveloped in their original gauze and canvas wrapping.
After a shopping spree in the little museum shop, we were all ready for lunch.
Directly opposite of the museo was the Kenticafé, part of the Hummingbird Inn in Kentitambo. The Inn absolutely deserved that name. We saw many hummingbirds feeding on feeders and flying about with their beautiful colors shining in the sunlight.
Blue and green ones, red and orangy ones, larger and smaller ones, we saw all kinds of hummingbirds. Standing barely three feet away from the feeder , we could see them up real close and a foto battle of the best hummingbird shot ensued…
We had a delicious home made pizza lunch with fresh salad with the most beautiful view over the valley. Sun and rain within minutes of each other let the surroundings glisten and shine in a million colors. We spent a long time chatting with each other and just marveling at nature. What a peaceful spot!
After an excellent slice of cake and coffee we wandered back through fields, picked up some beers on the way home and even got the missing pairs of rubber boots as well.
Time to chill until dinner and Pisco Sours before an early night.
Today we said goodby to Lima for two weeks and off we went onto our Peru adventure. The morning started at 3 AM with everyone waiting to pile their luggage into a bus. It looked like we were on an survival expedition lasting months, not four days !
With the bus being 30 min late, we would have made it in time for an european or U.S. airport to catch our 5.20 AM flight to Cajamarca. Our two last travellers, Harry and Sally joined us that morning, so we are now 10 in total. The lines were long at check in but huuuge at security. Our group got split up all over the place. We’ve asked several officials if we should skip parts of the line due to the upcoming boarding of our plane, but they all made us understand that we are fine. Heck, what do we know?! And actually the line was moving forward pretty fast. Security control was very efficient.
But once we were through the process, the screens showed final boarding for our plane. Eight of us made it barely onto the plane, and that was with Chris O. literally holding the doors to the bus open! Unfortunatly Jih-Ho and Chris R. did not make it. The signage and confusion about departure gates at the airport in Lima ( two different airlines were going to Cajamarca ) had them arrive too late at the gate. No amount of begging and pleading helped.
So eight of us took off on the flight to Cajamarca, where a nice breakfast awaited us. All bags arrive OK, even Chris R‘s bags got sent. The computer thought he and Jih-Ho were on board since we were all on the same reservation.
We took the bags into our custody and made our way to Laguna Seca our breakfast place. For the first time in days we saw blue sky an the sun shining!
Laguna Seca is a lovely spot just outside of Cajamarca. This place is known for their hot springs, Los Baños del Inca’. Cajamarca served as a major town in the North South Andean travel for centuries. Here is where the Spanish defeated the Inca and took their king hostage, be paid a huge ransom in gold and silver just to kill him later anyway ( listen up Chris R. and Jih-Ho! Forget about bribing security ).
Unfortunately we had no time to take a nice dip in the hot springs as we had a bus drive of around eight hours in front of us, most of it on very windy roads and it is highly advised not to drive after dark. More to that later.
Walking through the ‘Los Baños del Inca’ and we saw steaming streams , pools and even fountains with their white evaporation , giving this place a mystic touch.
The breakfast was delicious and we sampled again some new things. Cactus fruit, all pink and juicy as well as home made cookies with dulce de leche filling. Yum!!! Fun fact, coffee gets served as a concentrate here that then needs to be topped up with water to be drinkable.
While we were enjoying our breakfast, Leslie had already made arrangements for Jih-Ho and Chris R. who got left behind in Lima, to get picked up from Jaen, another airport and their alternative flight route, that had a better road to where we needed to go. That way we could make our road through the Maracana Canyon to Leymebamba as planned and still meet up our two lost souls at the hotel in the evening.
At first the drive was climbing up a massive mountain range up to about 2.900 meters above sea level. The road was just curves, no straights but very scenic. Vast dry slopes and green valleys everywhere. Some higher peaks shrouded in mist.
After passing the first pass we went all the way down to Balsas, a small village right at the only bridge that crosses the Maracana river.
What a difference in temperature and humidity! It felt like walking into a hot house!
At Balsas we stopped for a light lunch, consisting of incredibly fresh fruit, nuts and cold coconut juice. Another new taste experience for all of us was a taste of the mamey sapote fruit. Looking like a peeled brown coconut from the outside , it was a bright orange inside and had a large core. The flesh felt a bit leathery to the touch but tasted sweet and very pleasant. This fruit grown in tropical climate, but nobody of us had heard about it until now.
We are always amazed what new tastes we find when visiting a new country!
Off we went again climbing up steeps mountain slopes, the road winding like an endless snake. It felt like hours and many of us had to keep their eyes on the horizon so as not to get sick. We climbed ever higher – until we came to a complete stop.
Road works, delay of one hour before we could move on we got told. Getting out of the car and stretching our legs was very nice. The sun was pleasantly warm and we started continuing up the road on foot , knowing that the car would eventually pick us up. It felt so good walking , while others were happy to just wallow in the sun.
Views were stunning!
After the car had picked us up we climbed even higher and once we crossed to the other side we saw a the mist and low hanging clouds obscuring the peaks. This is where the sun rarely shines and fog is permanent. We’ll be having lots of it in the coming days. Saying good bye to the sun with lovely rainbows we started into the misty world of the cloud forest.
We could hardly see the road in front of us sometimes, so dense was the cloud cover. As the entire road is only one lane wide and visibility is close to nothing, we could very well see why this trip was better done during daylight hours.
We climbed our last pass of over 3.000 meters, all covered in mist, and made our way down again.
Finally after a long drive we arrived in Leymebamba and were welcomed very warmly by Nelly, our host for the next few days and owner of a wonderful small hotel called La Casona.
Esther really felt that after all this great food, some physical exercise was in order. So on Sunday morning, after a very nice breakfast with some of the Hatun Runa team, we set out to explore the high cliff walk and park two different ways. While Esther preferred to run, Chris wanted to try out the micromobility revolution by using one of the green electric scooters to whiz through the neighbourhood. They are standing around everywhere and will soon invade Munich, too. Setting up the app was simple as was using the little racing machines.
Heading down to the sea shore in a happy tandem of scoot and run, we spend a very pleasant and sporty morning along the sea shore. Many Peruvians were already out walking their dogs or doing some sports around the sea shore.
One can only imagine the magnificent view one has from up top the cliffs when (if ever) the sun shines. As it happens always around this time of the year, it was drizzling and grey.
Back at the hotel, with everyone gone, we decided to head into the historical center of Lima and explore the old city on foot. Best way to get to know it. We took a taxi to Plaza St.Martin and here finally we saw the splendor of the old colonial times all around this majestic square. Fine old buildings were restored all around and it looked exactly like in Spain or Portugal – if it wasn’t for the weather.
There’s something odd about the statue. Let’s forget about the chap on the horse for a minute ( it’s Jose Francisco de San Martin Matorras in case you wonder ) and focus on the woman below. She is supposed to be a physical representation of freedom, much like the big lady with the torch just off Manhattan. But she comes with one unusual feature: She has a small llama, perched on her head. While llamas are not uncommon in Peru (estimated pop. of seven million including alpacas), the llama is based on a small but significant misjudgement. The blueprint reportedly requested a female figure of liberty wearing a crown of flame. But, alas, one of the Spanish words for ‘flame’ is – well – ‘llama’. So that’s how Lima ended up with the sculpture of a dignified woman wearing a local mountain animal as a hat.
Walking down a long pedestrian zone, we saw that not all the old city had been restored like the Plaza St. Martin. Some old buildings had been lovingly renovated, but many old buildings are in a state of disrepair, to the point of falling down and being closed off, or have been torn down already and replaced with new, ugly looking buildings. We guessed that there’s not always the budget for maintaining such an old building in it’s original splendor.
Making our way to the Plaza Major, the main square, we heard music coming from bands and people lining up the sides of the street. Turns out that this was a parade of local bands and dancers in traditional, very colorful costumes. We really enjoyed watching the groups perform. There weren’t really many tourists there so it felt like a local Sunday event and all the families on the square enjoyed the performances.
The police was ever present, some of them fully dressed up in riot gear armed with a shield but they really had little to do. Actually they seem to enjoy the day as well.
We walked further north to the old main railway station. Now converted into a library with arts and exhebition, the building is stunning and what caught our eye most was a beautiful stained glass ceiling in the art nouveau fashion. Truly a gem.
Getting peckish, we had a small lunch in the oldest still active dining hall in town. The Cordano dates back to the 1905’s. Don’t expect innovation here! We drank the traditional corn juice with cinnamon flavor called Chicha Morada. The grape juice looking beverage tastes great in small doses and we prefer to dilute it with sparkling mineral water.
As Chris loves Sashimi, he enjoyed one of his many ceviches since arriving in Peru, after all the Peruvians invented ceviche! But next time we will try the butifarra which is french bread stuffed with country ham.
After a nice meal and good coffee which we didn’t take at one of the many Starbucks here in the city but at an original tiny peruvian café (support local communities!), we headed to the monastery of San Francisco.
This yellow complex is fairly large and has hundreds of pigeons which get fed just like in Rome or Venice. Rats of the skies!
The monastery was rebuilt several times due to earthquake damage. It has a very nice inner courtyard and church choir with impressive wood carvings.
The most interesting part though are the catacombs, where more than 70,000 human remains are buried underground. A fairly gruesome sight, especially if the light only goes on, once one is in the middle of those low ceilinged tunnels. Not Esther’s favorite place to spend a lot of time … But it was impressive, indeed!
Last but not least we headed out to Lima’s China town. While it was bustling with locals, tourists were absent and we did not see any Chinese anywhere, neither shopping nor working there. It was really weird walking through a China town without any Chinese…
We took a cab back to the hotel, where we met up with everyone and had a delicious dinner in very pleasant company.
Late last night more of our group arrived in Lima. We met Leslie, Jih-Ho and Chris H. for breakfast , Siobhan and Katherine, two youngsters, are also part of the WHIP group. (Weird Humans In Peru our travel name : credit to Jih-Ho Donovan)
We are still missing Ricky, Sally and Harry but the rest of the crew has arrived!
After a noisy and chatty catch up breakfast we met Milton Hatun Runa’s main contact and man-for-everything in Lima. He’s a super nice guy and he organized the transportation to one of the most important activities before we set out on our trip: money exchange in a somewhat unconventional way. We’ll leave it at that.
Next on the list was grocery shopping as we won’t be able to get many of the things once we hit the countryside. Wine, favourite snacks, pumpernickel bread just to name a few.
Hungry from all the shopping we went for lunch at “La Bonbonniere” and no it wasn’t really a French restaurant, it was a medley of all sorts of cuisines. The view from the terrace would have been great if it hadn’t been so foggy ;o)
Hang gliders were gliding precariously close to sky scrapers and a tour group foto, Chris O. nearly gave Esther a heart attack, perched on a silver rail without safety rope balancing on top of the cliff with a sheer drop of 100 meters only feet away.
After lunch we split up into separate teams , each doing their own must do’s for the afternoon. Leslie told us that outside of Lima, where we are going, it’s all cash in local currency , no cards , and no ATM. So we needed to get more cash out of the ATM’s in Lima, and they only dispense 700 soles at one time. We literally emptied 3 ATM’s cash reserves and it took us ages to finally take out enough to last us for the entire trip.
Lessons learned for next time!
We wandered back towards our hotel through the ‘cat’ Parque Kennedy and Chris discovered his favourite cat with floppy ears again. Now that grumpy cat is gone, maybe floppy ear cat can take it’s place ???
There was a lot going on in the Parque Kennedy on a Saturday. Seems the locals love being out and about. Public viewing of the soccer game between Peru and Venezuela, singing and dancing by people of all ages complete with DJ set-up in the park. They all seemed to have a jolly good time and it was fun to watch.
After some rest in the hotel, we gathered for a very special evening event. We were invited to a grand old mansion on top of a hill on the outskirts of Lima. This old mansion was built and re-built a number of times, last in 1880. You could see that it was a grand old building.
It’s reception area, dining room and courtyard all still remembering it’s former glory. Ornate window grills on every window and beautifully painted ceilings remind the visitor of the old colonial times. Being served a scrumptious buffet dinner of local delicacies with lots of fresh food, we doug in as the only guests there for that evening. And to top dinner, we were treated to a private performance of an African Peruvian music and dance group.
The sounds were really a musical medley between Latin American elements and African elements, as was the dancing. Besides the two professional dancers who performed, it seems to be a tradition that whoever is new on the Hatun Runa Peru trip that year has to perform as well, to the great delight of the rest of the crew!
We got paper tails pinned to our backsides and were given candles to light each others butts on fire much to the delight of the onlookers! Needless to say that we all made fools of ourselves not trying to be roasted alive ;o)) We confiscated as much as possible the photographic evidence but I am afraid that some videos and pics might pop up on some social media account…
This was also our first intro to Peru’s national drink: the Pisco Sour. A potent 48% alcohol, the Pisco gets mixed with lime juice, bitter, and whipped egg whites and served ice cold. It tastes a bit like a Margherita. Everyone had at least two of those but Esther really should have had only one…. Lessons learned…
To close out a wonderful evening, we went to a look out in the Barranco district.
This area is known for their bohemian little shops, restaurants and lots of street art everywhere.
It has a wishing bridge, where one has to hold their breath from one end until reaching the other end, then supposedly the wish will come true. It is a very charming area by night and we will be back in a few weeks to explore it a bit more.
Ok here we go on our next adventure to Peru.
After a really long, long flight from Munich to Lima, we arrived tired and aching. No matter how comfortable the seats were, not sleeping properly for so many hours is just tiring. Luckily our pick up from the airport was perfect and so after an uneventful drive we got dropped at our hotel in Miraflores.
El Patio is a cosy and charming old colonial building, sandwiched between much larger buildings that have risen around it since. It has little patios on different levels with cosy seating areas. Flower pots and plants are everywhere. And not a single mosquito in sight. That’s pretty amazing that we don’t have any bugs here in Lima.
After a surprisingly quiet night in the middle of the city, we went downstairs for our first Peruvian breakfast. Scrambled eggs, olive paste and toast with fresh passion fruit juice. Not bad at all I have to say. Today we wanted to explore Miraflores by foot. The others on our trip won’t be arriving until late that day, so we set out walking with a map and travel guide.
Our hotel is centrally located and so after a short walk we were in the J.F. Kennedy Park. And immediately what caught our eye are the many cats that are wandering about or sleeping on the grass. Seems there is a long tradition in this park to feed and adopt stray cats . We even saw a ‚cat hotel’ where cats could sleep inside … Everywhere we looked there were different color and size cats. It was quite an arresting sight.
What was surprising to us were the many street cleaners, gardeners and construction workers, that seem to be bustling about making the city pretty. Weather wise, we have to say there is room for improvement…. grey skies most days for most of the year and a humidity of 90% always….
Wandering through the park and the cats, we decided to pop into a large church next to the park. The church of the Virgin Milagrosa , which reminded us of temples in Myanmar with neon light effects making their way into modern day churches.
Walking from there we stopped at the Choco Museo and tasted ourselves through various % of cocoa, from super dark 99% to white. We tasted cocoa nibs, small fragments of the cocoa shell and various cocoa jam combinations. For the first time we drank chocolate tea made out of the cocoa shells. Really a weird sort of taste. It tastes hot cocoa but in tea form. Not bad actually. One more new taste experience to add to our memory.
From there we went in search of a real Peruvian market, and found one right next to a major city highway. It reminded us very much of the markets in Africa and Asia. Big hunks of freshly slaughtered meat hanging about, next to meticulously stacked and colorful fruit stalls.
An abundance of fresh vegetables and fruit everywhere. This felt more like the real Peru than the whole Miraflores district with it’s modern, but mostly ugly, high rise buildings. After strolling through the parque de reducto no.2, a big war memorial commemorating the Chilean / Peruvian war, we walked back towards our hotel.
We have to say there is no shortage of coffee shops and espresso bars. So we decided to stop at one which was so tiny , it was adorable. Barely 10 m2 , it is only comprised of three tables and a small barrista bar. The owner was French, so we chatted in French, which was so much easier than our less than our minimal Spanish, which collides with our French every time. After a very pleasant tarte d’amande and a café au lait we slowly meandered back to El Patio.
Stopping at a local supermarket for some drinks and snacks, we were surprised to see that this supermarket looked very much like a whole foods market in the USA. Food bought here is only slightly less than in Munich, I have to say. Judging from the theft protection on Red Bull cans , this seems to be the hottest item in town ….
Back at the hotel, it was time for a nap before going on our first gourmet expedition. Having heard so much about the excellence of the Peruvian cuisine, we were ready to start tasting it! Chris picked one that was ranked in the top 40 of all 3000 restaurants in Lima.
Saqra was located in a very old building below street level. Big old wooden beams set a nice ambiance and the colorful interior was very inviting. We had a small dinner of excellent quality and felt stuffed in the end but happy and ready for a long rest.
If all the food is like this here, this will become a food journey in any case and we’ll come home fat as pigs …
As you may have guessed, we were woken up again by dogs barking and early traffic on the road. One thing we are really looking forward to at home is our really quiet bedroom for an undisturbed sleep without dogs barking, priests chanting, early truck traffic and building noises.
We had a very pleasant morning bird watching (it helped to have two Swiss with a bird book on the table). We liked a small blue bird with red cheeks the most, called Cordon Bleu (no joke!)
Other lodge residents included half a dozen giant turtles, that were crawling around at their leisure.
We decided to take a kayak and to paddle around the lake. As if to cement the fact that Ethiopia is not a quiet country, the Air Force decided to have a few maneuvers with fighter jets above our heads and helicopters dropping divers over lake Babogaya.
After lunch we set out back to Addis with our driver and car.
As we still had some time to kill until our plane was leaving for Europe, Chris suggested that we visit Africa‘s largest market, the Mercato in the middle of town for some last minute shopping. When we say largest of Africa, that‘s exactly what it is. It is basically a whole quarter in a town that just consists of shops of all shapes and sizes.
Similar to guilds, different areas belong to different businesses. Some 50.000 small businesses are housed here from Monday to Saturday and sell their goods.
It was amazing, baffling, scary and exciting at the same time. Thousands of people running right and left through this maze of streets and small pathways. It’s one of those markets that weaves in all directions and you never know what you’re going to stumble into or what you’re going to find next.
Heavy goods get transported by donkey into the market. Runners with bulky loads on their heads are shouting ahead to clear their path. They are called ‘human trucks’.
We drove through some of it, the car repair corner and spare parts shops. The DIY and home improvement shops were right next to the building materials.
Our initial thought of just wandering through a picturesque local market evaporated when we saw the hustle and bustle as well as the maze of streets and walk ways we would have to navigate. We did not see a single Western or Asian looking person in the market.
We would never find our car again. ‘Chigger yellem’ = Hakuna Matata / no problem in Ethiopia, said our driver and stopped at two policemen (while we were thinking ‘En-dayyy!’ = Are you serious?!). After a short conversation, one of the policemen offered to accompany us through a portion of the Mercato and then deposit us safely in our drivers’ hands again in an hour. OK, with a curious feeling (specially Esther with her shiny blond hair) we left the safety of our minivan equipped only with a small camera and some money.
We were certainly the attraction of the market today as we felt like a fish out of water in the middle of the sea of dark-skinned people. Sometimes the policeman told some guys off, who wanted something (not sure what, as we don‘t speak Amharic) from us. We started in the household goods section and made our way carefully between all those stalls in pursuit of something interesting, always having to keep an eye out for cars, runners or donkeys that have right of way.
A fancy china shop caught our eye as we were ogling some of the small coffee cups, we had gotten so familiar with. Nobody spoke English, so price and quantity inquiries were difficult. Out of nowhere an older local guy popped up who spoke some English and decided to adopt us during our visit in the Mercato (‘You are welcomed guests in our country!’). He swiftly cleared it with our police officer, that he was one of the good guys and started to pull us along deep into the maze of small shops, where hardly a donkey can pass without toppling something over.
We found what we wanted and with this impromptu guide at our front and a police officer at our rear we really were able to enjoy whizzing in and out of various shops. We must have looked a strange sight passing like ducks in a row through this maze. Huge sacks with chili and spices were standing in the spice section, large injera baskets were woven on the spot for sale, and a drum maker was making drums out of the most unlikely materials.
Remember: Ethiopians are the kings of reusing and recycling what’s possible. Of course, there is an own department to do just that by going through some – what we would call – garbage.
The electro section looked like something out of an apocalypse movie, broken bits and pieces from a time long past everywhere.
The tailors section had rows of tables with old Singer sewing machines and busy tailors that altered any garment you just bought to your satisfaction.
In the plastic ‚lane‘ any bit of plastic scrap was separated, classified and segmented into their category and made ready for pick up by clients or a recycling company.
And so, we went from one area of the Mercato to another, fascinated at the sight that looked so foreign to us. Finally our two locals delivered us to our car again, safe and sound and richer by yet another new impression of Ethiopia. It was a memorable last activity and we were ready to go to the airport after that.
The streets that surround the market are just about always choked, but traffic seems difficult everywhere in Addis during any time of day.
A pillar reminded us of the socialistic past of Ethiopia when the country was part of the Eastern Block. With the help of the Soviet Union, Eastern Germany, North Korea and Cuba, the Ethiopian Army became in the late seventies one of the best equipped armies of Africa.
In 1974 the army seized power from Emperor Haile Selassi I (also known by his king name Rastafari – he inspired the Rastafarianism in Jamaica) with a military coup and installed a government that was socialist in name and military in style.
Civil war and the war with Eritrea as well as with Somalia led 1984 to the regime’s collapse. It was hastened by droughts and a famine which affected around eight million people and left one million dead – the pictures of starving kids (each month 20.000 died) from that time are imprinted in the collective European mind ever since. Even though Ethiopia still struggles with droughts, aid programs helped to prevent another catastrophe so far.
All in all Ethiopia to us is a very impressive, memorable, exciting and fascinating and friendly country with all its faults and room for improvement just like any country. It was definitively worth visiting.
‘Izosh ኢትዮጵያ!’ Stay strong Ethiopia!
Today it was time to say good bye to Lalibela and our great team at Simien Eco Tours. While we were scheduled to board a flight to Addis, they were to return by car to Gondar.
After a nice breakfast we drove 30 minutes to Lalibela Airport, the second largest in Ethiopia after Addis Ababa. On the way Esther finally got her pic of a donkey foal, which wandered with his mom along the road. They are soooo cute! Would fit so nicely to our horse collection…
The air strip looked well maintained and we expected the airport to be efficient and functioning well, after all there are only a few flights a day departing or landing here.
Well when we arrived none of the computers or wireless were working and the friendly staff was checking everyone in by handwritten boarding passes (just looking at our email flight confirmation) with free seat assignment and kept hand written passenger lists and baggage receipts. We’re wondering if we’ll get miles for it (Ethiopian is a very, very proud Star Alliance member).
Neither did they know how many exactly were to be on the plane, they did not weigh any bags either. Luckily Chris drone wasn’t an issue at all (specially Lalibela is known to confiscate drones and to send them to Addis Ababa for pickup once you leave the country). So, we just hoped that there were enough seats on the plane and we were not overloaded.
The flight was only about 50 minutes and they did serve a drink and a muffin.
Marco, the owner of Simien Eco Tours picked us up at the Addis airport and we had a nice lunch together. He showed us where to buy the best Ethiopian coffee beans. Early afternoon, a driver took us to our last lodge, at a nice lake outside Addis for a relaxing final day and a half.
Arriving at Debre Zeyit, also called Bishofftu, the first thing Chris noticed was that they seemed to just add random letters to words for the fun of it. Each word on any shop sign seemed to at least have three double letters, as if that was the latest fashion. Restaurant for example was often spelled Ressttoorant. Really funny.
As always, we saw plenty of action going on where Ethiopians favorite past time is concerned. In each village or town, there are at least several kicker / table football on the street and always a group of boys playing passionately as well as at least one billiard table in each village, often many more. Various covers and canopies try to keep the dust out.
After an hour and a half drive, we arrived at Viewpoint lodge, a small yet charming place overlooking the Babogaya lake.
It had a wonderful terrace overlooking the entire lake with its many birds flying back and forth between trees and reed grasses.
Our room was a round mud hut but it did have a small bathroom. Draw back was that it was close to the road.
Our other option would have been more quiet but neither with bathroom, nor toilet. We picked the first. We enjoyed a very relaxing afternoon and nice sunset there.
Normally we do a food blog as one of the entries, but frankly in Ethiopia the most amazing things we found were the menus themselves. We found amazing things on it: ‘Chees Berger with mined beef’, ‘Spaghetti with cheese dumping’, ‘Stake ala bis mark’, ‘fillet mignon café depari’… Of course, once you ask for a filet mignon you’ll learn that “we no have”. Today? Ever?
In short most food is medium spicy and Ethiopians honor Wednesdays and Fridays as fasting days, which means they don‘t eat meat on those days. Then only vegetarian dishes are on the menu.
Main ingredient of any Ethiopian dish is injera, the sour dough, pancake like bread that serves as a base for all dishes and it serves as cutlery at the same time. Ethiopian cuisine offers traditional vegetables such as beans, chick peas, cabbage, carrots, spinach or lentils and one always gets a good tomato and green pepper salad (green peppers as in green chilies…)
Ethiopians eat with their right hand and no cutlery, so we adjusted quickly. We love finger food anyway.
On fasting days, a very popular dish is Shiro, a spicy bean paste that gets served hot on top of injera bread. Aside from the vegetables, the meat served is mostly sheep or goat. We did have some chicken and beef, but that was mainly in the larger cities we drove through. We have to say that most meat was very tough. Animals seem to get slaughtered before they pop their clocks naturally, so our ox must have been at least 20 years old and even the chicken was tough in some places.
While Ethiopian cuisine knows some delicious soups, desserts seem to be absent in every menu, much to Chris’ chagrin. Whereas the fresh mango juices were delicious and common throughout.
After each meal or at breaks, often the traditional coffee ceremony was performed, which would delight Espresso drinkers, because that‘s basically what it tastes like. No milk and plenty of sugar. Burning frankincense is part of the ceremony, Chris’ guess was that it helps to attract more people. Which doesn’t work with Esther since she is not to keen on the smell of it.
Let us summarize our culinary experiences in Ethiopia as quite good (Esther) or as OK (Chris), but don‘t travel Ethiopia for the food. There are other countries with much more variety throughout. Nevertheless, we tried almost everything and never got sick, which is already a positive fact.
After having had Shiro for lunch we felt the need for something different so we had spaghetti for dinner (Pizza and Pasta are omnipresent here, a left overs from the short time of the Italian occupation) and had a pleasant conversation with some nice Swiss bird watchers which rounded out our last night in Ethiopia.
After a peaceful night and the best shower since having arrived in Ethiopia, we set out on a half day excursion trip to a remote monastery, known for its unique and stunning architecture.
The monastery of Yemrehanna Kristos is an hour drive away from Lalibela across bumpy roads. Only a few tourists make that trip as you have to have your own 4×4 car. The usual mini busses can‘t make that journey.
It is very different from the other holy buildings as it was built in the Axumite style of mixing wood and stone, rather than using pure stone/ rock to construct. One has to walk up to 2.700 meters above sea level, a walk of about 20 minutes and find oneself looking at a boring wall.
The monastery is built inside a large cave but protected on the outside by a three meter high wall with only one small entrance door. Again, shoes off on holy ground and in we went.
Right as soon as we entered the enclosure we were fascinated by the brown and white striped building. It‘s a real eye catcher.
It was built in the 11th century by one of the predecessors of King Lalibela. The Zegwe emperor, who supposedly imported the wood used from Egypt wanted to connect the Ethiopian and Coptic churches.
As stunning the building is on the outside, with its stripes and wood carved windows, the inside is remarkable as well.
The ceiling consists of ornately carved wooden shingles in various forms and paintings on the walls are quite well preserved. They never saw sunlight. The doors are original and beautiful in their massive construction with iron nails and old locks.
Towards the back of the cave, is the more macabre side to this place, as the skeletons/ mummified bodies of about 5.000 pilgrims are stacked up. It is not known whether they came here as far as from Egypt on their pilgrimage and died here or if an epidemic of some sort killed many of them and they were buried here. Not a pleasant sight, but impressive nevertheless.
Off we went again down for a nice buna (coffee) in the little village and even found a souvenir we liked.
Back at Lalibela we had a nice lunch and then set out to visit the second cluster of rock hewn churches, the Southern cluster.
Equally impressive than the Northern cluster.
Bet Gabriel Rafael is a very imposing monolithic church, where archaeologist are not sure if it was not the palace of King Lalibela with a chapel included. It can only be accessed by a small bridge as the only way into the building. It is surrounded by a big trench that fills up with water in the rainy season protecting it perfectly. As with many of the other rock hewn churches in Lalibela, the interior is much less impressive than the exterior. Fairly plain and simple with few ornaments or pictures.
We could see the restauration efforts as some of the churches had cracks and erosion over time. Through a small tunnel and a trench we reach a small building, that was supposedly the imitation of Jesus Christ‘s shelter in Bethlehem
Then through a pitch-black tunnel (no picture for evident reasons) of about 50 meters we slowly advance in complete darkness from the small shelter to a large, 12 meter high church called Bet Emmanuel.
This one reminded us of the Axumite style as well, like the monastery from this morning, as the exterior and interior mimics the Axumite style of mixing stone slabs with wooden beams. Just with this one it was all hewn out of rock. It is a beautiful church, very finely and precisely worked and supposedly the private church of the king and the royal family.
It really feels like this one has been crafted with special attention to all the details. The carvings of the window and columns are more exact and sharp, and the ornaments inside are cut with an exactness that is clearly above the others.
From there to Bet Mercurios, a half-collapsed church, that must have been impressive in its size as it contains 12 separate rooms. This one as well as the first Bet Gabriel Rafael are rumored to actually be the royal palace instead of churches. The layout and number of rooms of Bet Mercurios suggests as much.
Along the large trench and through several doorways and walkways we entered the last compound. Bet Abba Libanos not a monolithic church but a cave church.
An existing cave was extended to accommodate a square building. It is connected by the roof to the rock but one can walk around it completely inside a cave.
This building shows some serious cracks as well, as the rock face above it started to sag and is slowly squashing the church in the cave.
After so many churches, albeit very impressive, we felt we needed to see something different for our last days and so we finished off the day with a (near) perfect evening dinner at the only 360 degree panoramic restaurant in town.
While the view and sunset of Ben Abeba restaurant could not be any more perfect that evening, the strong winds ripped napkins from our hands, blew pepper mills and salt shakers off the tables and our food got cold in record time.
But Chris had the best burger in Ethiopia and it was the last evening with our lovely and funny crew from Simien Eco Tours.
Today was a long driving day for us. From Mekelle to Lalibela 300 kilometers drive that take a full nine hours!
You can imagine that the road conditions are very challenging at times. Most of the way is asphalt road, but that does not mean you can drive fast.
Our Toyota Land Cruiser and driver are perfectly equipped for those journeys but we obviously are not. Remember the ‘African massage’ from the other post? This was a mega massage that lasted for hours… About half of the nine hours spent in the car were on dirt roads in questionable conditions.
Even straight, asphalted roads here are not to be driven on fast at all. There is a number of sudden obstacles that can spring at you from any direction. Just to name a few:
Any kind of animal can suddenly walk into the road, from chickens and monkeys on the smaller side to camels on the larger. Sheep, goats, cattle, donkeys you name it, they will appear suddenly, prompting sharp breaks or avoidance maneuvers from our driver.
Then there are the hardly visible potholes. Mean half concealed holes in the surface that will break any suspension or blow a tire without warning. Blown tires are lined up at any village and city galore.
Then there would be the occasional traffic that we needed to overtake, or that was coming towards us. Mule carts that try to navigate steep downhill slopes using the entire width of the road in order not to slip down with their cargo or heavily overloaded trucks, leaning precariously to one side, crawling up or down the mountain roads like huffing and puffing snails. Often enough you see overturned trucks or lost cargo on the side of the road.
Then there are asphalt roads, that turn into gravel roads with no prior warning and then at some point back to asphalt roads. Great tire blowers are also the many improvised sleeping policemen (road bumps) some are just mounds of gravel on the road intended to slow the traffic down (usually in a village), some concrete humps, some are irrigation ditches. All have the same effect on cars: they have to crawl over those very carefully and at a snails pace.
And last but not least near invisible steel ropes straight across the road in about 1.50m height that are signaling a checkpoint where each car needed to slow down and get either inspected or waved through by a nearby guard or militia man. Often, we asked ourselves how our driver knew, as those steel ropes are hard to see. He just knew. We would have driven straight into more than one…
So, this explains why a 300 km drive can need nine hours.
Finally, we arrived at Lalibela, the most famous destination in all of Ethiopia. The Jerusalem for the Ethiopians and religious center. Former capital of the empire and the must-see tourist attraction of every Ethiopia traveler. More on this in the next blog entry.
As this day was mostly spent in the car, without many great picture opportunities, we decided to enrich this blog entry with some other fun facts and observations from our travels here.
Power: the relationship that Ethiopians have with electric power is rather sketchy. Frequent power outages lasting hours to days are not uncommon. Most important institutions and hotels have a generator. Wiring seems to be very haphazard too. Solar power is unfortunately hardly seen at all. Our little solar charger panel was in high demand in the mountains to charge everyone’s mobile phones. We would guess that half of Ethiopia`s houses are not connected to electricity.
Building boom: wherever we went, we saw new buildings spring up. Whether it is government supported housing for the people (looking like copy paste villages with their tin roofs and identical rectangular layout) to concrete office and factory buildings. This building boom is visible everywhere but the deep mountains. Scaffolding mostly looks like a wooden spider web attached to some other structure and large building machines are rarely seen. A lot is still manual, human labour.
Water in Ethiopia: as you may have guessed from some blog entries, warm or running water is good luck here in Ethiopia. While we were not at the top of the range hotels, the common theme was that while hot water is there with a boiler in each room, to find it in good working condition is not. Dribbling, luke warm showers are the norm and while not showering or washing hair properly is no big deal for a few days, after a while one craves a good shower and hair wash. Ethiopians in the countryside don‘t have running water for the most part. They fill up orange 10 liter canisters or water barrels at a pump that‘s more or less nearby and transport it with animals most of the time. We have seen some irrigation systems with the help of ditches, diverting water from higher up to the fields, but that‘s not the norm. Toilets are also mostly without flush. One has to pour water from a can into it and discard paper separately. We won‘t have a separate blog entry on the sanitary conditions as they vary greatly depending on location. Let it just be said that the bush toilet is a more preferred option than most here.
One thing we noticed straight away is that every man here is carrying a walking stick. We were wondering why and our guide told us that for a man a walking stick is like an extension of himself and always has to be carried. We compared it to a handbag for a woman in our world – without it, one feels naked. A stick is used to prod slow animals, chastise unruly kids, waved when dancing and leaned upon when one is tired – simply indispensable.
Recycling: it is big in Ethiopia, but not as one might think for environmental reasons, no – simply out of practicality and lack of resources. Just to name a few examples: we found plenty of old wheelchairs now functioning as rolling bases for small street shops and discarded water canisters were cut to make blinkers for the donkey and mule carts or fans for heating up the fire to make coffee. Broken pots were used to secure the tips of thatched roofs and plastic bottles are cut and painted green to simulate artificial plants.
Fashion: we noticed that while most men‘s fashions are western dress (with exception of the very old) , most women‘s fashion are local fabrics and gowns. Something that’s surprising but pleasant to look at with many bright colors. Shoes are mostly plastic sandals (for men) or plastic slippers (for women).
They are produced in Ethiopia. Gashow says, shoes from China have a poor quality here.
Today we had our first full day of Church-seeing in Lalibela. It‘s a small town of about 30,000 people now with small shops and the usual chaotic traffic and goings-on. Nothing out of the ordinary, other than that it is way off the beaten track and not visible at first glance.
Only reachable by plane or hours of bumpy dirt road it lies in the center of Northern Ethiopia as one of three former capitals. Lalibela was originally known as Roha, but was renamed Lalibela for King Lalibela who resided there for a long time and decided to build a series of amazing churches to honor various saints and the Christian faith. All within 24 years, he built 13 churches.
But not churches built from the ground up, he built them into the rock, downwards by excavating loads of pure rock. In huge excavated areas below ground level, some of the churches are 15 meters high and carved out of a single rock, pillars, doors, windows and all.
There are two main clusters of churches, the Southern and the Northern Cluster and one church that was built last and stands apart a bit. Today we visited that church and the Northern cluster of six churches. Some are covered by a protective roof nowadays, as erosion is taking its toll.
Bet Medane Alem is the world’s largest rock-hewn monolithic church with 11 meters in height and nearly 800 m² in ground area. It has an incredible amount of 36 rock-hewn pillars on the inside and 36 on the outside. Rather impressive on the outside, its main feature inside is a cathedral like feeling stemming from its sheer size and massiveness more so than any ornaments on the inside.
It is rather plain, with only a few holes for burial graves. Bet Medane Alem stands in its own excavated courtyard, the sheer outer walls only pebbled by some more rock graves or hermit‘s coves. A tunnel connects Bet Medane Alem to its neighboring courtyard, encompassing three churches.
Bet Maryam (Virgin Mary’s church) is smaller in size, about ten meters in height and about 260 m² in ground area. It was the first excavated church and is very popular with local folks.
As it happens the day we visited was St.Mary’s day and so the chanting we heard starting at four AM that morning was due to the celebrations in her honor.
One corner of the courtyard was roped off for ceremonial purposes and we saw the priests chanting, singing and dancing.
Inside St. Mary’s church we could see some older paintings, but they were not too well preserved.
On the northern side of the courtyard we visited a very small rock hewn church called Bet Meskel (House of the Cross) which is tiny with its 35 m² inside. While we were alone in it for a while, all of a sudden 50 Italians piled into the church all at once and we fled to the outside fast. A sea of shoes awaited us, as one needs to take of the shoes before entering any of the churches.
Bet Danagel chapel, is even smaller, dedicated to 50 (supposedly murdered) nuns but was not very remarkable. One thing to note in this courtyard is a deep pool of green algae covered water. History or legend has it that infertile women are lowered on a rope into the water and then are supposedly more likely to conceive afterwards. (…remark Esther: already back hundreds of years, why is it always the women‘s fault ???)
The last set of churches on the Northern compound, accessible through a series of trenches hewn into the rock, are combined together. Bet Mikael and Bet Golgotha are fairly small but very atmospheric. One feels transported back in time.
Bet Mikael is a dark church without windows. The only light is coming from the entrance door. It has a dungeon like, dank smell and it does not get better the further you proceed to the back of the church.
In the back wall is the entrance to Bet Golgotha, names after the hill outside Jerusalem. It is only allowed for men to enter this one and it boasts a series of life size reliefs of various saints around the walls.
Last but not least we found a rarely visited chapel on our way out. This one was the most charming and serene of all the holy places we saw this morning.
It is the Selassie chapel with its own little mini courtyard in front. Carved in the 15th century it houses the tomb of King Lalibela. A friendly priest agreed to be photographed and proceeded right to ring the bell for prayer time after telling us that he saw the arc of the covenant as a kid and that it has been found right in this chapel.
Having had our fill of churches for the moment, we decided not to visit the Southern cluster that same day, but to relax a bit in the hotel and only do one more church in the late afternoon due to the nice evening light.
We set out to visit the touristic highlight of all the Lalibela churches only around four PM that afternoon ( it supposedly closes at five PM), right when we ran into the motorcade of our President, Frank Walter Steinmeier, who happens to visit Lalibela at exactly the same time as us. Luckily, he just left when we arrived and we were surprised how little security was. We could walk right by his SUV before he set off and look into the window. The army guards around the car did not stop us in any way to pass.
The most photographed and iconic church of all of Lalibelas churches is Bet Giyorgis (St. George`s church)
It is the youngest of all the 15th century churches and has a completely different shape of all the others, as it is a full monolith and shaped like a cross.
It sits deep into its own courtyard and can only be accessed by a trench from the outside and a tunnel in the wall.
There is no climbing down the 17-meter sheer rock walls that surround the church. As stunning as this iconic church is from the outside, as bare it is on the inside. Still it is very atmospheric inside.
Legend has it that St.George was offended when he heard that none of the churches King Lalibela built was dedicated to him and so he visited with the king and complained.
The king then promised to build him the finest of all churches and so it came to be. It is an awesome sight from above and the outside, thinking that it was hewn out of sheer rock in only six years. According to legend, it the Lalibela churches were all carved by day labour and not slave labour, but who knows… It’s a lot of carving in 24 years…
Despite supposedly closing at five PM, we were allowed to linger on the outside for much longer and profit from a beautiful setting sun and without any tourists on the premises anymore. A local photographer was impressed by Chris’ camera and we decided to let him take a picture of us, that he printed out on the spot.
To round up the day on a lighter note than seven churches, Chris bartered with a TukTuk (in Ethiopia it’s called Bajaj, spoken Badshash) driver to let him drive back to the hotel.
As always, money has persuading powers and so we took the Bajaj and the driver showed Chris how to drive it without crashing.
It was a lot of laughs from all sides until we were home again.
We had been so looking forward to have a long sleep in on a Sunday morning in our beautiful Gheralta Lodge when we were woken up at two AM by chanting monks again. Arrgh!
It was Sunday and while the next church was about two miles away, the sound of chanting in the silent night travels very far and clear. Needless to say that sleeping in was off the menu…
Nevertheless we had a very nice breakfast in the lodge, could update our blog with some better internet than usual and headed out on our first hike only at 9.30 AM in beautiful sunshine and about 24 degrees.
Our guide had never visited that particular rock church, and so we could only go by what the guide book told us. We found the start of the trail easy enough. According to the book it was supposed to be an hour walk up to a high plateau and did not say anything about the terrain itself.
So we started walking uphill, joined by two uninvited pseudo guides that were trying to negotiate their way into our small group and of course at the end of it get paid as well. The guide book said it was the most remote of the churches, and indeed we were the only ones there.
The hike started pleasantly enough, meandering through the shrubs and up the mountain, but dragged on and on in the sun. Up and up we went for nearly two hours, Chris was ready to throw in the towel after about one hour of rapid heart beat and out of breath state due to the high altitude.
The path could only be guessed as there were no markings whatsoever. Finally we arrived at the plateau and one of the guys following us had called the local priest who is in charge of the masses and baptism that are happening in the Church as well as opening the church to visitors (and charging them for it).
Through a small rock passage and with bare feet we entered this seemingly small church. It is carved entirely into the rock, complete with pillars, two entry doorways (one for women, one for men) and even a few window openings were hewn into the rock. It always amazes us how much work this must have been and who oversaw the static and architectural elements of it several hundreds of years ago.
The paintings were very similar to the ones we had already seen (Mary`s travels to Egypt with baby Jesus, St.George defeating the dragon, 12 apostles, and this one had the holy Johannes, as he helped Mary to escape and also escaped himself onto this hill top by magically flying up there with a winged snake.
Here he then built this church which was never destroyed or ransacked even during the time that the Jewish queen Judith who tried to eradicate the Christian orthodox church and install Judaism instead.
Again the views from the top were great and when asked if we wanted a different way down, faster than the way up we accepted and our adopted guide earned his money by showing us a more direct path down. So in the end both additions to our team proved to be very useful, one having gotten the priest to unlock the church and the other by leading the way up and then down the mountain. All in all it took us three hours, double the time we had planned.
Chris then flatly refused to do one more step up a hill even if the next church was only a flight of some 100 stairs. He stayed in the car napping while Esther and our guide went up to see Abraha we Atsbeha.
This church was founded and excavated by two brothers of the said name, supposedly around 335 AD, but a British archaeologist dated it more around the 10th century. The mummified bodies of the two brothers are still kept in the church in the section Holy of Holiest. The Church has 13 large pillars that support a high roof of stone. Each church has three areas: the singing / chanting / reception type area, like an entry chamber, then the praying section and then the Holy of Holiest. This section is always veiled with curtains and only the priest can go there. The Tabots are kept there too.
In the Abraha we Atsbeha church, the first welcoming chamber is made with regular bricks, but the second and third sections have been hewn into the rock completely. It measures 16 x13 meters and is at least 6\six meters high inside. A fire and some water dripping through the rock ceiling have unfortunately destroyed some of the art work. The remaining art work is much more elaborate than at most of the other churches we have seen so far. They were painted with much more detail and accuracy, which can be seen in the people’s faces and their horses.
Enough churches for a few days, back at the car we had to wake up Chris and drive to Wukro, our lunch destination over some dirt roads where serious road work was going on. It looked like Ethiopia wanted to build a next highway here and our road was a curious mix between four lane wide freshly graded dirt road sections and one lane wooden bridges in between. Luckily the traffic is still so light here that those one lane bottleneck bridges don‘t matter much.
After our very good lunch in Wukro, where Chris ate goat for the first time here in Ethiopia, we simply drove to our next overnight destination, the regions capital Mekelle, an industrial town which Chris refused to take a picture of due to it’s dinginess …
… but for documentational reasons he finally took a shot to show you how Mekelle looks like in the early morning hours.