With Lakmahal slowly folding up as it were, and the country in decline, my principal solace in 2014 was travel. Asia and Europe I knew well, and I had been to enough of South America to feel I had seen enough of it for the moment. The Middle East too I had seen a fair amount of, Iran in 2008 and Syria and 2009, and then the Lebanon in 2012, Sidon and Tyre and Baalbek in the depths of winter.
Africa seemed to me the great hole in my travels, and I thought this was the year I should see more of that continent. I had been to Morocco and Egypt in my travels round the world on the Semester at Sea programme, and I had been back to Morocco for a Liberal International event, going on that occasion down towards the desert. And I had had a blissful few days in Luxor, redolent with the sensuality described in ostensibly staid accounts of the adventures of English ladies there in the nineteenth century. I had been also to Aswan on that trip (though there was a sandstorm that prevented me getting to Abu Simbel), and marveled at the reach of Hellenic civilization, at the exquisite temples on the banks of the Nile. It was also exciting to see the Aswan Dam, which had been an iconic construction in my youth, along with the records of British scientific observation on Aswan Island.
But Black Africa I had not seen at all, except for a few days in Senegal in 2003, again for a meeting of Liberal International. I had been struck then by the beauty of its people and the splendor of its coast, neither of which had I associated previously with Africa. But I had not stayed long enough to see much, and so a determined effort seemed in order in 2014 with little else to do. Fortunately there were excellent officers at our High Commission in Delhi and the High Commissioners in turn, Prasad Kariyawasam and the erudite Sudharshan Seneviratne and more recently Esala Weerakoon, allowed their remarkably efficient consular officer to get me the necessary visas.
On these journeys I took Kithsiri, because I was slightly worried about the difficulties of internal travel, and indeed the hotels, since I neither wanted to, nor could afford to, stay in expensive ones. He had been a great travelling companion before, in places about which I had not felt entirely at ease, Iran and Syria and Lebanon, and then Tunisia the year before. Though much younger, he was not quite as energetic as I was, and sometimes sat in the shade when I explored the more interesting backwaters. But in all fairness I was sometimes too concerned to see everything the guidebooks mentioned, and I could see his point in feeling that one set of foundations of houses in an archaeological complex was much like another.
But Ethiopia was bliss, and it was good to have him, especially on the incredibly difficult treks to hilltop monasteries. We were fortunately well equipped with warm clothes, owing to a fortuitous meeting the day before I left with UNDP Representative Subinay Nandy. Until he told me that the country was high in the hills and could be cold, I had thought of it as tropical. But we certainly needed sweaters and more, up in Axum, legendary home of the Queen of Sheba, and in the mountains around it, and also in the magical city of Lalibela, where we stayed at the Seven Olive Hotels, high on a hill with magnificient views of the countryside below. We lingered late into the evening on the terrace there over a beer, grateful for the sweaters and jackets I had packed at the last minute after speaking to Subinay.
I had booked to go straight from the Addis Ababa airport to Axum, and it was certainly good to have a companion in the dead of night as we moved from the main terminal to the domestic one, and persuaded the curious staff there to let us in and allow us to sleep in the waiting lounge till check in was open. In Axum we found a hotel with a delightful if peripatetic travel agent, who got us a car first to explore the city that day (and what was supposed to be the palace of the Queen of Sheba, though the dates were all wrong for that) and then to travel for a couple of days to the hilltop monasteries in the region.
I fear I did not get to the one which required climbing up a rope, but I certainly felt I had done more than my years warranted in getting to the Mariam Korbu and Daniel Korbu monasteries, after a terrifying climb up what seemed to me sheer rock faces. Fortunately all these sites had youngsters willing to guide you up for a pittance, and they were certainly helpful at places where I thought falling down the slopes was a fair possibility. And the monks trotted out obligingly from their quarters to open the doors, followed by goats and sheep, one of them slightly drunk though it was still morning.
The monasteries were extraordinary, with the most delicate frescoes, and breathtaking views. And in several of those lower down were beautifully illustrated bibles, which the priests would hold open for inspection, without letting you touch them. Sometimes we would come across wonderful chanting, and pilgrims in white swaying gently to the relentless gentle rhythms.
But trumping these were the churches of Lalibela, hewn into the stone way back from the end of the 12th Century. They were all fantastic, as were the hillside monasteries to which our taxi driver obligingly took us on the way to and from the airport. But more than exotic was St George, carved from a rock which stood sheer in a square area you had to descend to from the upper level of the hill, which was parallel with the top of the structure.
Given the state of the roads we flew there, and then on to Gondar, with its European style fortresses of the 17th Century. The architecture there was extraordinary, both the palaces of different kings in the main citadel, and the Selassie Church, with a roof covered with endless frescoed faces. And lovely too was the almost rural retreat at QwesQwam, with the simple sleeping arrangements of the royalty of that distant period.
Interestingly more than one of our drivers told us how much they appreciated the Chinese aid programme, a sentiment I had heard earlier from my perceptive if eccentric British friend who had been settled in Cambodia for a couple of years. The West poured in money for what it termed capacity building, which involved the elite going for expensive training programmes which profited the Western trainers more than the country at large. The Chinese however put money into infrastructure which brought obvious benefits to the people, in terms of better communications and utilities. I could see then where Basil Rajapaksa, whom I had thought unduly concerned with cement alone, was coming from, though I still feel that, given the educational advantages Sri Lanka had, he should have ensured that more was done for human resources development, so that the people could take full advantage of the developed infrastructure.
From Gondar, flights being less easy to find at short notice as we got nearer to the capital, we drove to Bari Dar, which was the source of the Blue Nile. Seeing the waterfall which is held to mark its origins was a magical experience, as also a boat ride in the late afternoon, to see the old monasteries on the islands in the lake. The sun was setting in a blaze of colour as we got to the edge of the lake from where the Nile was said to start, though it was a tiny stream there and only took on its majestic character at the Falls we had been to earlier in the day. In the evening we had our beers at the edge of the lake, where an obliging waiter brought us dinner too.
I had been fascinated by the Nile from the days when I had read about how it in effect created Egypt, and I had loved travelling across it in the little ferries that transported one to the various sites in Luxor and Aswan and in between. But it was during this trip, seeing its majestic origin (or rather the origin of what I knew to be the lesser branch) that I became truly fascinated. Ironically, in Venezuela, two months later, I came across a book on the Nile written by a German called Emil Ludwig in the early years of the last century, which combined detail with romantic sentiment that I found fascinating. That engrossed me in my hammock in Canaima, in between seeing other exotic waterfalls and cataracts.
The bus journey the next day to Addis was wearisome, and Addis crowded, but we stayed in the Taitu Hotel, which had been founded by the Ethiopian Empress of that name in the early years of the 20th century. The museums were also evocative of that old era, Ethiopian having remained the only independent country in Africa. This had led to its being preyed on by the Italians, who had lost out rather in the scramble for colonies that had obsessed Europe in the 19th century.
On the last day, since our flight was late at night, we got a car from the hotel to go down to the lakes at the top of the Rift Valley about which I had read so much. Our driver was a well educated refugee from Eritrea, and his tales confirmed what I had long suspected, that the West engaged in intrigues to split up countries, which would reduce resistance to the controls they exercised. But having achieved their aims, they did nothing for those who thought they were proteges of the West, so now Eritrea, and South Sudan too, are basically basket cases – as indeed Kosovo is, except for the enterprising criminality of the leadership the West set up. We can see similar tragedies occurring in Libya and, were it not for the refusal of the rest of the world to allow Syria to be raped, the same would have occurred there.
Ceylon Today 6 Sept 2016 – http://ceylontoday.lk/print20160701CT20161030.php?id=5088